Compared to many rock bands, local group Toy Zoo is an odd duck: The lineup includes two bassists, a keyboard player and a drummer but no guitarist; before joining the band, lead singer Lara Harper had never performed live; Toy Zoo drummer Jason "Bug" Burke is at least 10 years older than the other four members; and the group's miscellaneous feel extends to its name, which was chosen almost at random.
"It didn't necessarily come from anything specific," Harper said. Instead, she said, she and her bandmates just thought, "We've got this band, we've got these songs. We should probably have a name for the band."
As ragtag as Toy Zoo may seem, its mix of punk and '80s synth-pop has garnered the band some attention. Paste Magazine featured Toy Zoo in its July 2014 article "10 Idaho Bands You Should Listen to Right Now" (along with Shades, Hillfolk Noir and Edmond Dantes). Toy Zoo's upcoming self-titled debut album on Heart in Box Records was mixed by Sleepy Seeds' Brett Nelson (former Built to Spill bassist) and mastered by Mell Dettmer, whose credits include albums by Earth, Sunn O))) and Wolvserpent.
Toy Zoo will be released Monday, June 15, on cassette, but before that, Boiseans can see the up-and-coming band on Wednesday, May 20 at Neurolulx, opening for Nashville, Tenn.-based rock band Diarrhea Planet and Philadelphia, Penn.-based rock group Left & Right.
Toy Zoo formed in 2013 as a trio made up of Harper and bassists Cory Hentrup and Chessa Lilly. Hentrup, who also performs as the one-man dance-rock act Hedtriip, had come up with the idea for the band during a road trip.
"I've always enjoyed dual basses," he said. "There are only a few bands I even know of that have pulled it off."
Those bands include '90s power-violence punk outfit Man Is the Bastard, whose sludgy tempos, growled vocals and screeching riffs sound nothing like Toy Zoo's hard-driving rhythms, upbeat tunes and playful synthesizer hooks. It was that kind of incongruity that appealed to Hentrup.
"It seems like a lot of the influences for writing [Toy Zoo songs] come from '80s pop music, but I just got the idea driving back from Boise to Twin," Hentrup said. "I was like, 'I want two distorted basses with pop music.'"
For Harper, whose low, sultry vocals anchor the group's sound, Toy Zoo represented the chance to perform after years of watching her friends play in bands.
"Everyone I associated with was very musically inclined, and they all had projects already," she said. "So I'd start something with somebody, and they wouldn't really have time to work on it because they were busy with other projects."
The band started gaining momentum when Burke and keyboard player Delvin McComas joined. Harper, Hentrup, Lilly and McComas all grew up together in Twin Falls—none of them knew Burke, who reached out to them after he heard some of their early recordings online.
"He already knew all of our songs," Harper said. "We hadn't even met him, and he already knew. We were like, 'Well, all right, come down to Twin. Let's see how it works.'"
Burke lived in Boise and his joining the group gave Harper, Lilly and Hentrup incentive to move here. They'd already resolved to leave Twin Falls, however—to find artistic opportunities, they would need to look beyond the Magic Valley.
"A friend of mine once said, 'Twin Falls is a great place to be from,'" Harper said, "meaning that you don't stay in Twin Falls. A lot of good things come out of Twin Falls, but [people] have no choice but to leave Twin Falls because there's nothing for them there."
Before they left, though, they made the most of their time. For about three years, Lilly and Hentrup ran house venue The Meth House, which hosted touring acts like indie-pop artist Colleen Green and surf-garage group Guantanamo Baywatch.
"We had a good stream of music coming through from 2009 to probably 2012, when I graduated [from high school]," Lilly said. "So that kind of helped, and all of our bands would always play with them, so we got connections through that."
Once the members moved to Boise, longtime musician Burke helped Toy Zoo forge connections here. He introduced the band to Nelson and to local musician Z.V. House, who recorded Toy Zoo in his home studio.
In the near future, Toy Zoo will be connecting with more people. The band is scheduled to play the Heart in Box Records Life's a Beach Fest in Denver this summer and hopes to hit the road for a small Northwest tour. Tours can be rife with tension, but Harper is sure the members of Toy Zoo can work through any problems.
"It's just like a family," she said, "where you can't stand being around your family, but you also just love them. I feel like that's us."