There is no Eugene Quell. Eugene Quell, like so many names on the Internet, is a façade of sorts, a name in binary code that conceals the actual human being behind it. In this case, the actual human being is named Toby Hayes, and Eugene Quell is his online persona, his attempt to maintain a sense of anonymity. I guess I’ve already dispelled the anonymity with this paragraph, so there goes that.
Eugene Quell burst into the notice of the guitar-centric music world earlier this year with the release of Eugene Otto Quell, Hayes’ first release under that moniker. If you’re like me, you thought Eugene was just a cool guy with a cool name making cool ’90s-tinged music. So I was surprised as hell when a guy named Tobias Hayes was cc’d into an email conversation between me and Dan Goldin from Exploding In Sound Records, who is probably* going to handle Eugene Quell’s newest EP—A Great Uselessness—in the U.S.
*“We just haven’t sat down and properly talked about. You know, if he’s up for stuff, we are. I might actually email him later.”
Despite what the entirely fabricated Eugene Quell biography says (born in Los Angeles in the ’70s to musician parents, traversing the American landscape in gypsy fashion, living with a man named Cox after his parents tragically die in a car crash), Toby Hayes is a friendly as hell 32-year-old living in Brighton, a coastal town on the southwest edge of East Sussex, England. When we caught up over video chat, Toby was wearing a loose-fitting flannel shirt with a V-neck underneath and sporting what looked like a trucker’s hat. His loosely kempt facial hair suggested he hadn’t shaved in a few weeks. The perfect look for Eugene Quell’s music.
We began talking at 7:00 a.m. (12:00 p.m. in England), bags under my eyes and coffee on my mind. After a rocky start as Toby navigated Google Hangouts for the first time, we discussed Hayes’ history in the Brighton music scene. It turns out he’s a veritable music vet, a member of nine different projects since 2004. His first and incredibly short-lived band was a noisy punk outfit called Push To Fire. They only released one 7” during their yearlong tenure. “I was really, really proud of it, but we just didn’t get on,” Toby told me. “Yeah, after writing a few songs we realized we didn’t really like each other. But by that point we had already booked a tour, so we sort of, like, did the tour and split up.”
After that came Meet Me In St. Louis, named after the 1944 Judy Garland film. Formed in 2005, the group toured extensively and gained notoriety within the math/post-hardcore community. Their first (and only) full length, Variations on Swing, was released on the Big Scary Monsters imprint in 2007 and became something of a cult classic among fans of the genre. “Cult classic” might even be an understatement in this case—September 24, the album’s original release date, is now an unofficial holiday appropriately and unimaginatively dubbed “Meet Me In St. Louis Day” (“What effect did Variations On Swing have on you? Favourite song?”). Toby left the band in 2007, and the group officially called it quits when they couldn’t find a replacement vocalist.
Having first listened to Eugene Quell and then going back to Toby’s earlier stuff, especially Meet Me In St. Louis, it was hard to believe that the same guy was a major figure in both projects. His voice is familiar, but the affect is different—anger and visceral emotiveness in his punk mode as opposed to the slouchy rasp of Eugene Quell. And this is only a comparison of two of his projects.
Toby went on to mention three other bands: Love Among The Mannequins, Bermuda Ern (an early version of “That One Song” from the new EP appears on their first demo release), and Shoes And Socks Off. Each project is guitar-based, though not quite as frantic and technical as Meet Me In St. Louis. Love Among The Mannequins and Bermuda Ern are technically still active, though they haven’t released any new material in a couple years. Shoes And Socks Off was Toby’s first solo effort, which he abandoned in 2012.
Shortly thereafter, he began writing songs as Eugene Quell. “The music is completely unoriginal. Just the kind of stuff I grew up listening to. It’s just fun. That was it. I’d always wanted to make music that sounded a bit like The Breeders, so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do that, then.’” Putting it out into the world was the hard part, because the ’90s sound has been making a very palpable comeback in recent years. “It’s a little bit scary to be releasing it because it seems like a thing that everyone’s doing… It was so genuine in the way that it started and it wasn’t considered that people might listen to it. It was just really for me. It was just really like, I want a nice, big snare sound and shitty, trashy guitars, you know?”
That’s exactly what he did. “It was just gluttonous, proper gluttonous music. Just fun, you know?” If you’ve heard any of Toby’s music as Eugene Quell, then you definitely know. Eugene Otto Quell is 11 minutes of fuzzy, fizzy alternative rock. It has that ’90s reminiscence, but doesn’t sacrifice homage for originality. For example, the main guitar riff on “Weird Purr” sounds like it could belong on a Nirvana demo, but Toby’s voice adds something else, an attitude that can only be fostered after 10 years of extensive touring and songwriting.
A Great Uselessness is a loosening of the slack of Eugene Quell’s debut: bigger vocals, bigger guitars, bigger drums (see: the first three tracks on the EP, especially “Alta Loma”). I don’t even need to speculate that Eugene Quell’s first full length—which is going to be recorded in August—will be even better, an album of unbelievably mature music from a man more than seasoned in his scene.
When I asked him about the scene in Brighton, Toby trailed off into an anecdote about a friend that makes visual art instead: “Last night I was around at my friend Yannik’s house, and he makes these little pieces of art—they’re really hard to explain. One of them’s a horse—a little toy horse—all covered in fur, and it’s about this big [he creates a baby-sized space in the air between his hands] and it’s laying on its side and it’s holding one of its hooves and there’s a queue of miniature people that he’s painted. And they’re all queuing up along this grass and then he’s holding up one of these little people and it’s just sitting on the edge of his hoof, and they’re just talking. And it’s so—that’s it. You don’t know what to do with it. He just sort of makes all these weird little things. And they’re great to look at! They’re amazing. But you don’t know what to do with it. I love it. I don’t know what to make of it but I love it.”
It’s the same with his music. Something he makes because he loves it, even if he’s uncertain about it at times.
Toby Hayes smiles and tells me, “Nice one, man,” before we sign off. When we exchange goodbyes, I’m left wondering what he’s doing at the other end of the screen. What I just talked to was a rendering of a man in binary code, so maybe Eugene Quell still has that anonymity, that mystery. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it because this interview happened way too fucking early for me to even pretend to think with a semblance of normality. Either way, Toby Hayes is adding to his own legacy, and we’re lucky enough to be able to witness someone like Toby at his height.
A Great Uselessness will be available digitally and on 10″ vinyl via Eugene Quell’s Bandcamp on August 4. Stream “That One Song” and “Alta Loma” from the release below.