Every band looks to level up with a new record, but with latest album ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’, Trash Boat’s Tobi Duncan is holding nothing back.
Words: Steven Loftin.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Tobi Duncan is filled with defiance. For as long as he can remember, he’s been stewing on the fact that we’re all living in a world hell-bent on eating itself. Zoom out far enough, and all the overarching issues remain with people simply doing what they can to extinguish the smaller fires. Peek in a bit closer, and our very nature can be even more distracting. One giant hadron collider of humanity. Hefty stuff for a rock band, but Trash Boat are ready to be more than that.
After forming in St Albans in 2014, Trash Boat’s early years were dominated by “running tactically”, according to their singer today. Simply put, they’ve been purposefully holding themselves back to concoct moves that tie in with their plans. It’s after years of cutting their teeth on Warped Tour, numerous support slots and two albums, 2016’s ‘Nothing I Write You Can Change What You’ve Been Through’ and 2018’s ‘Crown Shyness’, that this next level has come calling.
“The growth element is interesting because you’ve probably talked to a lot of artists that are just like ‘it is what it is, we don’t care if we get big or not’.” Tobi starts, sipping from a cool beer on a blistering summers day. “That is a foundational element. If the band ended today, I’d be happy with what we did, so I don’t really have an innate desire for the band to get bigger, but at the same time, I totally do. Obviously, I want to be the biggest band in the world.”
‘Don’t You Feel Amazing’ is a big, bold, ballsy step towards this. A message of rebellion, Trash Boat are finally untethering the beast that they’ve always threatened to be after their gnashers unveiled as they bandied about in a pop-punk soaked, hardcore enthused world. This time the canines are full-on snarling, surrounded by an ardent heaviness and a healthy dose of industrial sounds, with the hefty matter to match.
You see, they’re digging into everything from the pros and cons of hedonism to the desensitisation of culture, Tobi’s past addictions, and much more. Admitting previously he was guilty of “using very heavy metaphors and trying to convince people that I was a really intelligent guy,” now it’s more based on drilling to the point as quickly as possible: “How can I get my point across in five words or less?”
Bluntness is the architecture of Tobi’s DNA. A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, his earlier years were spent exploring contact sports before an unfortunate accident put pay to his rugby careerist dreams after a complex knee injury. Still troubling him to this day, this led to a painkiller addiction and, eventually, porn.
But that was the Tobi of old. Now, he’s unequivocal on where his sights are set. “I want the maximum human experience,” he reasons. “Now I’m looking for the natural maximum.” That’s what this new era is all about for Tobi, along with Dann Bostock (guitar), Ryan Hyslop (guitar), James Grayson (bass) and Oakley Moffat (drums).
Relishing in the stripping away of pretence for the more vulnerable personal matter, this is perfect Tobi fodder. “There’s nothing worse than an artist singing about something incredibly sensitive and divisive that they’ve never touched,” he says. “I chose these topics because I was like, ‘Where can I be as brutally honest as possible?'”
If you find yourself face to face with Tobi having a chat, it’s this frankness he brings to the table, often with a wry smile. On his recovery process, he happily offers: “The pills are pretty cold turkey, but my relationship with them has completely changed. The porn stuck around. The porn really, really stuck around for a long time.” Though only in his late twenties, Tobi understands his platform is a place to affect change and to face the cold, hard truths of the world.
Perhaps the iciest of these facts is that it would be incredibly easy for him to relapse into his old cycles. Still surrounded by painkillers, on a purely medicinal basis, he admits that he does miss some of the surface elements of his past lifestyle, “because it’s easy! It’s cheating.”
“It’s like if you cheated at tests your whole life and got A*s, and then all of a sudden had to use your own intelligence and started getting Bs, and you’re just remembering how easy it was to cheat,” he says, chewing on the reality. “We do everything, as humans, to get certain chemical responses in our brain that make us feel good. This is what drives us. Drugs, and sex, and porn and all this horrible stuff, it’s just a cheat sheet that pumps those chemicals into your brain. So obviously, there’s an element of me that misses that in every way.”
“But there’s a bigger element of me that knows that it’s not sustainable,” he continues. “It bleeds into other areas of your life; it doesn’t stay where it is. It doesn’t stay localised at all. And it starts not only not being as good but pulling other areas of your life in with it. All of a sudden, I was 25, and I was looking at the rest of my 20s being like, these last five years, from an objective standpoint, I’m embarrassed. No one knew because I wasn’t like a ‘breakdown in front of my friends sitting and crying in front of the fridge’ kind of guy. I kept it all to myself from an outward appearance; I was just fine. No one knew anything.”
Each lesson on ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing’ stems from a moment of reflection similar to this; be it on a larger, societal scale, noticing the numbness of the television masses (‘Bad Entertainment’), or his unpacking of just how his addictions played into his life. Tobi’s particular moment of clarity came from not wanting to hit the big 3-0 and ultimately losing twelve years of his life to poisonous practices.
“There is an element of learning from your mistakes,” he admits. “Blind hedonism is bad because you develop bad habits and dependencies. But now that they’re out of my life, I can look back and have these tactical moments of arrogance. I can access that feeling in a song on stage, and it’s that heroin feeling where it’s just the best, but it’s not controlling my life anymore.”
‘Don’t You Feel Amazing’ is a journey of self. The album finds itself thundering in with the title-track’s swagger, before winding up in a moment of fragile reflection with acoustic ‘All I Can Never Be’, along with the electronic fray of ‘Maladaptive Dreaming’ where Tobi laments he’s “beautiful to my mum at least”. It teems with self-acknowledgement and not only wrestling with the complex wires of humanity but daring to push them into consciousness.
“I’ve got a lot of skeletons in my closet, and I’ve got a lot of bad decisions that I’ve made – a lot of things that I need to repent for and be honest about,” Tobi earnestly shrugs.
On whether he’s laid everything out on the table, he offers that there are actually a few more pages to be turned in the book of Tobi. But, the nature of him keeping a few cards close to his chest is understandable. “That would be just me dipping into ancient history and being like, ‘Oh, hey, this happened, and it involves my whole family’,” he explains. “So here are some addiction and medical problems; this kind of stuff I was like, I can share.”
Perhaps the most daring of Tobi’s thoughts come in the spiky ‘Alpha Omega’ with its screamed anguish-loaded chorus of “Idiot, you’re a fucking idiot!” Head in his hands shaking, Tobi says laughing: “We argued about that chorus because it’s like… it sucks. It’s like Limp Bizkit!” Focused towards a particular surgeon who could not properly diagnose Tobi’s injury, leading to a lot of back and forth, “it was just a really bad relationship between doctor and patient,” he says.
There may also be these tender moments of genuine reflection, but ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing’ finds its heartbeat is one of aggression and power, fuelled by that wonderfully tricky beast called ego. “I also like myself. I like my friends. I like my family. I like my lifestyle. I like my body. I think I’m generally quite nice. I can dip into that, like, ‘fuck yeah, everything’s cool’. But there’s also a lot for me to humble myself about, to let people into that kind of honesty because it’s all part of the journey. I think I can do both.”
Looking back at the Trash Boat of 2016, there was no alluding to this new Tobi sat in front of Upset today. One whose confidence in himself, bolstered by his band’s new groove, means he’s embracing everything, but also he’s still a part of that fallible humanity big bang. “I’ve always been cautious of my ego. I don’t want to be considered an egotistical guy. But then that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? I’m thinking about how I want to be perceived by other people.
“That’s a side effect; it just happens. It’s passive. Like, I love embracing all the things that I love about myself. Yeah, I think I can be a little bit arrogant for sure. Why not? I can be honest about the things that I like about myself without it being an egotistical thing.”
These days he’s most likely to be toting a bulletproof vest while topless, showing off his defined upper body, and mugging for the camera with a surly, ready-for-anything look. Clearly, if you want to be the biggest band in the world, you’ve got to blow your own trumpet more than anyone, right?
“I’m doing it for me,” he retorts. “I’m not working out and trying to get myself a nice looking upper body or wearing ridiculous bulletproof vests or dripping myself in the honey… I’m not doing that for anyone except me because I like the way it makes me feel. It makes me feel sexy. And if that bleeds into other areas, and other people think the same thing, cool, fair enough, whatever. That’s gonna happen no matter what it is; when you put yourself out there, people are gonna see it, but I do it all for me.”
Certainly, it feels like celebrating yourself – decidedly being a bit sexy with things – is amiss in the cantankerous rock world. “I think it’s projected humility,” Tobi ponders on this matter. “People want to be seen to be humble. People will be like, ‘I don’t care what you think’; that’s just what they want people to think. It’s a carefully curated element.
“In reality, everyone cares what you think. We’re social creatures; that’s how it works. As long as, in my opinion, things come from a place of honesty, I don’t really have a problem. Even if it’s horrible, I’d rather someone be honest about being horrible than hiding it. I want to know who the arseholes are. If someone’s gonna be a Nazi, like, be fucking honest about it because I want to see where they are. I don’t want them to hide in the shadows.”
The funny thing about ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ is that this isn’t Tobi clearing the air; this is just the beginning. Readily launching into more of that weight on his mind, his thoughts flowing with the countenance of someone who’s undoubtedly done their homework. He’s armed and ready to dip into everything from cancel-culture justice (“Is there a more pragmatic way to have that vitriol and energy directed towards the upper echelons of society, where actual change is going to be affected?”) to the burgeoning issue of trans athletes (“The potential solution to this problem would be to completely restructure the way we categorise people in sports”).
Mentioning a recent appearance on a podcast where the latter was edited out because of its divisive nature, he says: “This conversation needs to happen; it’s questions like that that aren’t being asked. I love the most difficult questions or grey areas, man. I love it! I’m such a confrontational guy. I love a good debate. I love a good argument. I think it would be fun to go on those conservative podcasts.”
A point that he reiterates throughout our chat, Tobi is more than primed to get himself amongst that consistently frothing fray. “I love conversation; I love hearing other people’s opinions. And I love fact-checking myself through conversations where I think I know what I’m talking about, and then someone will be like ‘erm… actually no’. That’s how you grow; you learn.”
He continues: “In none of these songs – or in life in general – do I purport to have any kind of answer, but I wanted to bring the topics to a public format so that I could at least say that I’ve said my piece, and I put my opinion out there. I want to have the conversation.
“I want somebody to step in and be like, ‘Hey, I think homosexuality or anything aside from the heteronormative sexuality is bad, and these are the reasons why’, and I’ll be like, ‘Right, I’m so fucking glad you said that because I’m about to change your life over the course of the next couple hours because I think you’re just so wrong!” A point close to his heart as Tobi “sits on the LGBTQ+ spectrum” himself.
Indeed, spending the afternoon with Tobi confirms this. The hegemony that reigns in this world is rife for a targeted Tobi Trash Boat tirade, all fair game given his own experiences with the medical side. Tearing into the free capitalist society ideas threatening the coveted NHS, particularly for Tobi, who had to go through his own experiences after that knee injury, feels the closest to home of all the issues he passionately tears apart.
“Get the profit incentive out of medicine,” he deadpans. “I don’t give a shit about the 0.5% corner that exists where billions have been dumped in, and they’ve got some Batman technology that only Elon Musk can use. You put money into medicine, you get mass innovation – for who? For me? It doesn’t trickle down. I’ve got a busted knee, and I can’t get the super Batman knee that all this money goes into. Socialise it.”
This is where ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ differs entirely from their previous efforts. It’s taking these issues and, as Tobi says, hopefully, enticing people “to challenge these conversations.”
“I don’t want to live the rest of my life thinking I never said that because I didn’t want people to think I was just putting my ego out there like, ‘hey, I want to change the world’. That’s why I held myself back. It’s like, I’m not a political guy. I’m not like Zac De La Rocha or Noam Chomsky. I’m not fucking running for governor, so why say anything political? Why put my voice out there? With this album, I was like, why not?”
So, with this action finally on its path, with ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ on its way into the world, does Tobi feel like that itch has been scratched, or has it only just begun?
“If I’d solved the problem, if I’d written a song and the entire world had gone ‘Ah, fucking hell, sick!’ and then all of a sudden the world changed, it would be off my chest. But these things will be perpetually on mine and everyone else’s in the world’s chest till the day we die. I’m suspect at the idea of change at this point. There will be radical change,” he piques. “History has shown that if you don’t give the people a little bit of socialism, they will take a lot.”
When the Charles Dickens classic Tale of Two Cities gets mentioned, Tobi clenches his fists in jubilance, leaning over the table. “Great book!” Its historical telling of the (very) bloody French Revolution seems to be something that ignites a fire in the frontman.
“I think it’s closer to happening than it ever has been in the last 50 years,” he muses. “Ever since the great prosperity and the housing market crash: so the 70s, early 80s? I think we’re the closest we’ve been to some sort of revolution.”
It’s this revolutionary fighting spirit that’s rooting thickly throughout the soil of Trash Boat of 2021. Ready to go toe to toe with any who’ll dare take them on, Tobi and co. are a force to be reckoned with. Not turning their back on the scene that helped them grow into the beast they’ve become today, Tobi reasons: “We wanted to write that type of music, and we did. We’re not abandoning that area; it’s still very much a part of our history and a part of the music that we’re currently writing; we’re just metastasising upon it in a rapid way.”
Recalling his favourite moment in the studio to date, after finishing his vocals for the kicks-like-a-mule titular track, Tobi disappeared for a break to get a cuppa. Returning minutes later to a very excited producer, Jason Perry, “bouncing in his seat” in a very loud room. “He got up, and he was like ‘BOYS!! Boys! This is fucking ace! This is so fucking good!’ He kept winding it back to the start and just like jumping around the studio.”
They’re hungry for more of this feeling, and there’s nothing that can stop them. The consensus seems to be, if this is what Trash Boat can achieve after six months of remote songwriting due to the pandemic and a couple of weeks to quickly get it all down in the studio, then what could they achieve once the world opens up? Time waits for no one. Tobi, of all people, knows this. He’s had plans and dreams snatched away in a moment. That urgency is the adrenaline-fuelled heartbeat throughout their third outing and its separate pieces barreling toward their own realisations.
‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ is Trash Boat grabbing the wheel and finally steering wildly wherever they see fit. This is them entering this confusing, conscious fray of a world with ideas. They’re in control now – of themselves, mostly: “We’re running at full speed. As opposed to running tactically, we’re just sprinting.” This is all just a reaction finally exploding outward, and they’re toting the sound to go with it. “It’s over-expression to make your point,” Tobi mentions of the vitriol that hammers throughout, draining the dregs of his drink before summing up Trash Boat’s M.O. for the future.
“I love contributing to the vibe. I love putting that energy out there. We’ve always been high energy. I just want to play some really heavy, crazy songs, get wild and play some shows. Let’s write about some politics! Let’s go!”
Trash Boat’s album ‘Don’t You Feel Amazing?’ is out now.