At first, I thought the members of the San Francisco punk band Toyota were trolling me when they asked me to meet them at Hard Rock Cafe at Pier 39. Toyota has a well-documented interest in kitsch and corporate branding, so I obliged because I thought it would be funny to interview the four musicians under Hard Rock's giant, plastic statue of a guitar.
However, as I trudged there from the East Bay on a rainy Friday night, I got a text from one of the bandmembers letting me know that Hard Rock Cafe was closed for a private event. He suggested an equally corny, surf-themed tourist spot, Wipeout Bar and Grill, where we could chat over too-sweet tropical cocktails with terrible names like Sex on Baker Beach.
Toyota is a fairly new group, formed less than six months ago, and there's little information available about it online. Even so, it has garnered a substantial following in the underground house show circuit on both sides of the bay, largely through its live performances and ten-minute-long demo tape Concept Model(s) I–V, which it released on cassette and digitally on Bandcamp through its own label, Discontinuous Innovation Inc.
Concept Model(s) I–V is obnoxiously hyperactive, but it's also infectiously fun. The tape features rapid bursts of punchy, staccato instrumentation. Its repetitive song structures wind into tight spirals, becoming faster and more climactic through the reiteration of each phrase. With its wiry guitars, jolts of drumming, and off-center bass, Toyota largely eschews melody. Its vocals at times sound like maniacal chatter or mean-spirited kids jeering on the playground. And yet its bright, bouncy sonic palette and catchy riffs still tether its sound to pop.
No one — except those who have seen Toyota play live — knows who the members of the band look like, let alone who they are. Toyota has become steeped in a sort of mystique, prompting rumors to swirl around on Facebook that Samuelito Cruz (the ultra-prolific guitarist behind local punk outfits Toner, Happy Diving, and Never Young) is part of the band — which he isn't.
The musicians seem to be enjoying the hype they've been building through their anonymity. They wouldn't give me their real names, instead opting to introduce themselves as car models. Camry Toyota, the bandleader, plays guitar and sings. Tundra is the bassist, Toyota Previa is the other guitarist, and Prius Toyota is the drummer.
"[Prius] is the most efficient member of the band," said Camry.
"And I chose Tundra because I've got sub-zero bass lines," Tundra added.
Camry quipped, "The Camry is very popular and I'm a very popular person. Just kidding, they usually get key-scratched. I usually get key-scratched at shows."
Throughout the conversation, the members of Toyota responded to my questions with joke answers — some of which turned out to be flat-out false. "To begin, we're a business, not a band," Tundra said, correcting me as I attempted to ask about the themes of mass production and technology in the group's work. Toyota's Bandcamp page — which features logos that appear to have been created on MS Paint or a similar, out-of-date software — appropriates corporate design tendencies in a very off-brand, bootleg-looking way. The band's logo features four, Braille-like dots and the letters D.I. Inc. (for Discontinuous Innovation), lending it the look of branding from a previous decade.
Prius agreed with Tundra. "We live in a capitalist society — why not start a capitalist band?" Tundra enjoyed his answer so much that he asked Prius to repeat it with his mouth closer to my iPhone's microphone, making sure that it made it onto my recording in the noisy restaurant.
Though they've played many house shows in the past, the bandmates professed that they would be moving away from them in order to focus on gigs that offered them greater compensation. That's surprising, I replied, as many of the punk bands I've interviewed have expressed their love for performing in DIY spaces.
"It's fake. ... No one actually enjoys house shows. People just wanna party," Previa said bluntly, shutting me down.
"We don't wanna be part of the punk scene, that's not our goal at all," Tundra added.
The rest of the bandmembers tossed around potential slogans about efficiency as they slurped their colorful margaritas through straws. I noticed that they wore identical, white polo shirts with the four-dot logo hand-painted onto them.
"There's no joy in Toyota," said Camry.
Prius added, "The joy is in our revenue stream."
"We go to our Bandcamp and see how many people chose to pay [for our music] when they didn't have to pay," Previa said as everyone else sneered. "Idiots," they all said, almost in unison.
Prius then stopped the interview to ask me if I wanted a balloon animal. He and Tundra both do balloon animals as a side hustle in addition to studying at San Francisco State, he explained, handing me his card and then taking it back to cross out his real name and write "Prius" in Sharpie. They pulled out pumps and balloons from their backpacks. Prius made me a gray elephant and Tundra made me a dark blue shark.
While it's tempting to call Toyota's gimmick a parody of the capitalist tendencies in music today — with independent artists taking pains to create catchy personal brands in order to vie for attention on social media — labeling the band's work satire wouldn't be entirely accurate. Three of the four bandmembers said they're majoring in business-related fields at SF State, including marketing and accounting. Though Toyota's lo-fi, abrasive brand of punk is a far-cry from any of today's mass-marketed music, the band's appropriation of corporate branding doesn't contain an obvious critique, either. In fact, Camry said that he chose to name their label Discontinuous Innovation Inc. based on a concept he learned in marketing class: "It is a product that comes to market that is so new and innovative, it completely changes the existing market. Like the Apple iPhone — that was a discontinuous innovation."
"Everything the label puts out is a discontinuous innovation," said Tundra. "That's the impetus behind the band and the label. We want every product we put out to be a discontinuous innovation."