Performing for the last several years under the moniker Otem Rellik, Toby Hendricks has certainly paid his dues. Living in Fort Collins, he's developed his craft largely through experimenting at open mikes and performing at shows with indie rock bands. Although his own vocal delivery is heavily influenced by Sole of Anticon fame, Hendricks drops his words like dominoes, one falling after another, rather than the fiery, chain link burst delivery that has made Sole such a magnetic figure.
With his latest album, Elephant Graveyard (slated for release tonight at the Meadowlark), Hendricks takes a departure from his previous release, Chain Reaction Robot, adding a bit more musicality and variation in song dynamics. Every song is a lyrically thought-provoking exploration of identity and leading a meaningful life. We had a chance to speak with Hendricks about his origins, his songwriting and what it was and is like to be an experimental hip-hop artist in Fort Collins.
Westword (Tom Murphy): What is the significance of the name of your project?
Toby Hendricks: A lot of people ask me that, and it's kind of an innocuous choice. People aren't going into my music thinking a certain way about it. It's one of the goals of the name, I guess. My music is sort of hip-hop, but I don't want people to assume it is because of the name. It's designed to make people take the music for what it is without preconceptions. There's no real significance to it other than that.
WW: How did you get into hip-hop, and what lead you into doing something different from mainstream hip-hop?
TH: I grew up listening to it. My older brother listened to Public Enemy and NWA way back in the day. I strayed away from it for a while. I was listening to a lot of semi-underground, kind of commercial hip-hop like people on Rawkus Records. Then I heard about Anticon, and that pretty much changed my perception of music entirely.
The early stuff on Anticon was a huge influence on why I wanted to start making music. It was so much different from anything I've heard. It was an eye opener in terms of what could be done with music. That was really inspiration. Sole and Dose One -- I started making music after I heard those Anticon guys.
Ww: "The Four Sided Secret" and "Elephant Graveyard" definitely sound like you've been influenced by Anticon acts, in general, and Sole, specifically.
TH: My cadences and how I rap... I honestly never thought about it. It was whatever fit the song. I haven't really stressed a lot about if I'm a good rapper or not. I place more emphasis on the lyrics themselves. Singing, I feel like, for me anyway, is a lot harder than the rapping, and I'm growing more in that direction.
Ww: Being from Fort Collins must be interesting for someone doing the kind of music you do. What were your early shows like, and were there venues, people or bands that you found encouraging and nurturing along the way?
TH: When I first got my started playing out here, I got my start doing open mikes. For the first year, that was pretty much all I played. There's a small coffee shop out here called The Alleycat that I played at. There's a restaurant called Avogadro's Number, near The Alleycat, where I played as well.
I just wanted to play because I was just getting into it and I had no idea how to book shows. My friend Max Hughes, he's a guitar player, he used to play open mikes a lot, so I decided to start doing that. From there, I started meeting other artists. I guess my first shows came from that.
The scene here, for me, is not great. I definitely have fans in this town. I don't want to sound egotistical or anything, but there really isn't anyone else doing what I'm doing here. So it's this weird thing where nobody really knows how to book me.
I basically get shows just because I'm friends with other bands. But we mostly don't sound alike. I play with Candy Claws, because they're really good friends. And Paean. But there's no hip-hop scene here that I fit into. It's hard to get a big following because it's a small group of people who know who I am that come to the shows.
I've played everywhere in Fort Collins. There used to be a really good house show scene here a couple of years back. There was a place called The Alley House down the street from The Alley Cat that had some really good shows. Then there was a place called The Schoolhouse, which was this schoolhouse on Vine Street. It was all DIY stuff. My release show is at Avogadro's Number, and I've been going back there. I played Hodi's Halfnote last week. I'll play anywhere really, but there aren't a lot of great places in Fort Collins.
Ww: Why did you call your latest album Elephant Graveyard?
TH: I started making the songs, and they had a lot to do with memory and collective unconscious kind of stuff. One day I heard the term, I don't remember where, and I thought it was a cool concept, and I looked into it and figured out what it actually was. It was right along the lines of what I was writing about at the time.
The idea of an elephant graveyard being a place where elephants naturally go to die because of some weird instinctive, unconscious memory thing is cool. I felt where I've been in my life and the places where I've spent a lot of my time, I've left an imprint in that space. I left my skin cells or whatever there or some kind of energy. Like I've left my own elephant graveyard in the various places I've lived.
Ww: You have a song featuring Danielle Ate the Sandwich. Why did you have her guest on your album and how did that come about?
TH: I've known Danielle for five or six years now. I used to do open mikes with her a lot. She used to be in this band called Backdraft: The Musical. She was in that band with a couple of other friends. I've been friends with her since then.
I'm surprised we haven't done music together before because we've always been friends and done our independent stuff. I just approached her and asked her if she wanted to be on the song, and she was totally into it. She lives in Loveland now, but we stay connected. I technically work for her doing her website. We're just friends, so that's how that happened.
Ww: On the new album I hear even more stylistic departures from your previous work. What have you been trying to do of late that's been significantly different from what you were doing on previous releases?
TH: I've been trying to do more full songs in terms of composition. I guess I've been putting more thought into the arrangement. Vocally, I've tried to expand the choruses and really working on my voice and harmonizing. A lot of my older stuff is strictly me rapping. There's not a whole lot of stuff I sing on, and stuff I did sing on, I cringe when I hear it because I didn't know my voice well, and I'd be way off key.
I really want to do more singing. Not that I want to do less rap, but doing more singing is a personal goal of mine. The latest stuff I've been working on is more folky-sounding, and one song has no rap whatsoever. That's the direction I'm sort of moving in, but I'm definitely not done rapping.
Ww: A lot of your songs seem to be melancholy explorations of loss and disappointment, but there's also a kind of deep empathy there. One lyric that struck me is in "Sour Segments," and it goes, "I'm critical of progress but take pride in a job well done." That's a pretty sharply conceived statement. Can you elaborate on what you meant in that lyric or perhaps in the song as a whole?
TH: "Sour Segments," whenever I play it live, I always tell everyone I'm going to play a hip-hop song about crying because there aren't many hip-hop songs about crying. But that's what it is. I think I say something about being my father's son. I'm very critical of my own music and art and my other modes of expression. When I'm finished with an album, song or piece of art, there is a lot of pride involved there. I do take pride in what I've done to the best of my ability.
Elephant Graveyard was an album that took about three years to write and record. I've been getting slower and slower with my releases because I feel like that sometimes I'm overly critical and I can't let a song be finished. All my songs are true life, honest stuff. I write songs as a sort of therapy. It's a way to express myself and get stuff off my chest.
I don't know why it came out as music, and it's weird to air all your stuff out in songs. I think it's really divisive that way, because some people really latch on to it because they can relate to the songs, but some people don't because maybe they've never dealt with something like that, or they just don't listen to music for that reason.
Ww: What are the most rewarding and most frustrating aspects of being a songwriter and performer, particularly of hip-hop, in the place where you live?
TH: As far as frustrations, I could tell you a lot about that. There's not really a place for me to fit here in Fort Collins. I could change and move, but I like it here. Rewarding? It's nice to be able to get my stuff out there. This doesn't go for Colorado at all but I get a wide reception on the internet, and I get emails every so often that are very sincere, which I think is really cool because I try to be as honest and sincere in my music.
I had a friend in Fresno who listened to Chain Reaction Robot, and he wrote to me and said he had just gone through a divorce, and it just helped him out, listening to it. That's the most rewarding thing ever. I make music to get my own emotions out and express myself, and that's rewarding to me. But hearing how someone else relates to the music and telling me it's getting them through hard times is the most rewarding thing to me.