The members of The K.G.B. met as sophomores at The Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. Singer-guitarist-keyboardist Toby and bassist-singer Moses quickly formed a musical bond. Says the former: "I found out Moses was playing bass and I was teaching myself guitar. We started jamming Elvis songs, The Stones, whatever had three chords. Somehow we got into discordant space rock - David Bowie lyrics with kind of an Elastica vibe. It was very stupid. We called ourselves The Vermicious Knids." Moses illuminates, "They're the evil aliens in Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator."
The Knids suffered through a handful of sub-par drummers before hooking up with Tom (who also plays valve trombone and sings) of the local ska-punk band Alien Spy. The son of a noted choral singer, Tom was then going steady with Toby's ex-girlfriend. He, Toby and Moses got to talking at a Halloween party at a house with a drum kit in the garage. Tom displayed his chops for his future bandmates, who were sufficiently impressed to recruit him on the spot.
Toby remarks of the band's early efforts: "It was a very innocent high school thing. Our moms drove us to practice". The boys jammed a blend of classic rock staples, alternative rock anthems and their first originals. A unique musical identity eluded them, however, until the following year, when Toby and Moses took a school trip to England.
They spent their first nights there perusing the rock-steady/reggae record racks in Brixton and growing close to classmate Ben. Turns out Ben blows a mean trumpet (as well as playing organ and singing). According to Moses, Ben began playing trumpet because "he was an avid Dungeons And Dragons player, and he thought the trumpet would be the most medieval instrument, like guys heralding the king's arrival."
"When we came back, Ben joined up and we became more of a rock-steady band," says Toby. "I don't really know how it happened, but it probably had something to do with Rancid's 'Timebomb.' There was something so spy-ish about it."
With a new sound blossoming, the boys needed a new name. "The K.G.B." was fittingly mysterious. It may refer to the Soviet version of the C.I.A., but the three letters actually mean much, much more. "We could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you," Moses insists. The most common conception around the East Bay Area, where most of the band is originally from, is that the name stands for "Kensington Garage Band," a reference to Toby and Moses's hometown of Kensington, a small suburb near Berkeley, CA.
Rechristened, Moses, Toby, Tom and Ben recruited Johnny Genius for his six-string prowess. A music student at the School Of The Arts High School in San Francisco, traveling oboist in the Bay Area Wind Symphony and diehard Aerosmith fan, Genius colored their songs and allowed Toby to pawn off those tough guitar parts and devote his energies to fronting the band. That year - 11th grade - the kids got busy in the East Bay all-ages scene. Donning full rock-steady regalia, they set their peers to jamming at Berkeley Square, Ashkanaz, iMusicast, and 924 Gilman Street.
Success in these venues led to a purported trip to Japan, apparently sponsored by a package tour showcasing young American rock and pop acts.
"The Japanese loved us," Toby boasts. "We had an amazing time, even destroyed some hotel rooms. That's also where we developed a very serious sushi fetish; in the studio, we had to eat sushi four or five times a week." Tom alleges: "We opened for The Knack in Osaka - at Budokan." Toby ups the ante: "And we met Yoko Ono. We were playing one night and she jumped onstage, grabbed a mic and just started shrieking. We were playing 'Goodbye Girl' and the show suddenly turned into an avant-garde noise jam."
Back home, The K.G.B. served as test subjects for students at a local engineering college in exchange for free studio time. "It sucked", Toby declares. "You'd sit there for, like, six hours while some instructor explained what all the buttons did; then you'd get an hour to do as much recording as you could. I'd do all my vocal takes in a row. I wouldn't even break between songs."
Not surprisingly, he describes their first demos as "total crap", pointing out, "I sound like a castrated 10-year-old girl." Still, these tapes piqued the curiosity of the local music industry. Folks at San Francisco's influential Live 105 caught on, as did a handful of managers, including EGM's Eric Godtland and Dusty Sorenson, who also handle Third Eye Blind (with whom The K.G.B. have since toured) Comments Godtland: "Their songs were brilliant, but the guys were still finding their vocabulary. They were devouring music: The Police, Led Zeppelin, Squeeze, Stax. They ransacked my huge vinyl collection. For two years, it was like a music school - they absorbed everything, practiced for eight hours a day and wrote like crazy."
EGM connected the band with producer Michael Urbano (who has played drums for Cracker and served as a sideman for John Hiatt). He also helped foster The K.G.B.'s development from high school garage bashers to eclectic, melodic musicians. Urbano schooled them in the work of James Brown and the classic Motown artists, significantly augmenting their understanding of grooveology.
Toby says of the experience: "Michael taught the horns to listen to the vocals and the bass to listen to the kick drum - all the little things you naturally pick up from playing in bands for 10 years. We learned more in three months with Michael than we had the entire time we'd been a band. We started listening to more soul music and straight-up rock and realized we could apply all that to our sound, which was great because playing reggae-influenced stuff had just gotten old. Our songs became more fluid and expansive; you could play them a lot of different ways and they still sounded cool."
The K.G.B. then headed to San Francisco's Toast Studios, where the allure of a big facility with seemingly unlimited tracks proved more a stumbling block than a blessing. "Those demos were totally bloated," Toby admits. "We were romanced by all the gizmos at our disposal. We used every track on the board and then some. We hadn't figured out yet that we didn't need to do so much."
The Toast tapes were nonetheless adequate for a major-label shopping trip. Toby and Moses packed up their acoustics and made the rounds, playing stripped-down K.G.B. numbers for prospective A&R reps, but their activity proved fruitless.
The trip wasn't a complete wash, however. In New York, Toby and Tom (who'd flown out when Moses had to return to the Bay Area), found time to practice the rock star moves they'd flirted with in Japan. "We got sent to this really fancy Japanese place by one of the labels," Toby recalls. "We ate a ton of Kobe beef. Then, after the meal, we went back to our hotel and spent hours tossing glasses and pillows and CDs the labels had given us out our 19th-story window. We broke so much stuff. But then we heard a knock at the door, so we threw all our clothes off and got into our beds to pretend we were sleeping. The hotel manager just yelled, 'You're outta here!' So at 2:00 a.m. we were on the street in our underwear with all the stuff we'd thrown out the window."
Returning west, The K.G.B. went back in with Urbano, recording at Oakland's Sharkbite Studios. This time, they churned out a bunch of much more economical and light-hearted songs. DreamWorks Records principal Michael Ostin loved what he heard and signed the band. Says Toby: "This was a perfect situation and an ideal time to put college on hold. We could live at home and practice every day - you just can't do that when you have a day job or classes."
Indeed, The K.G.B. continued to practice tirelessly and further immersed themselves in music history, learning more and more from the greats of soul, rock, pop and funk. They sorted through a sprawling stock of songs, reinventing early K.G.B. material and infusing newer compositions with what they'd gleaned from their ongoing survey. After months of pre-production, the boys joined Urbano and co-producer David Bianco (Tom Petty, AC/DC, U2, L.L. Cool J.) at Oakland's Studio 880.
Mixing went down at Universal City, California-based Larrabee North. "We stayed at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, which had no hot tub, no room service and only old people staying there" Toby states. "We were in the Portola wing of the hotel. The building across the way was the El Dorado wing. We were so fried after two weeks of mixing that we somehow got it into out heads that the El Dorado was the enemy. We decided to wage war - 'El Dorado must die!'"
So we get home and Tom's playing the vintage drum kit he'd bought way before we ever went to L.A. He looks down at the bass drum and scratched on there is, 'El Dorado.' I swear to God, none of us did it. It had been there the whole time. It was the curse of El Dorado!"
The curse does not, however, seem to have affected The K.G.B., which bears a warm, organic sound that amply reflects the band members' various influences. Sequencing and programming are co-credited to Urbano and enigmatic, unofficial sixth K.G.B. member y-bot, a shadowy figure the band is reluctant to discuss. "He's a communist," Tom offers. "Shut up - he is not!" Toby retorts, clarifying: "y-bot is a close personal friend of mine. He's from Kazakhstan. He's very pale. We speak with him through a translator. We send him MP3 files."
In 2000, Dreamworks released their first major label material, "The Space Cadet" EP. This was followed the next year with the release of their full length self-titled album. The album's single, Lover Undercover, never caught on however, and the label soon dropped them. Tobias claims this was due to the fact that the single was released on September 9, and after 9/11 no one was in the mood for a happy go lucky, pop band. Also, its important to note that Dreamworks, new to the music business, didn’t do nearly enough to promote the band, and their biggest promotion came as a cameo in the movie Road Trip.
After being dropped, the band went about recording new material and looking for a new label. Eventually they managed to get an audition with one of their heroes: Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes, and his label Star Trak. The K.G.B. played him a variety of their new material, which infused pop with funk and hip hop. Williams was very excited about them, and wanted to sign them, however a suitable agreement couldn’t be reached.
While the band never officially broke up, they phased out of playing shows and recording, doing one final “reunion” show, a benefit for the iMusicast venue in Oakland, alongside other defunct East Bay All Stars The Locals and Solemite.
The band have since remained unsigned, and performing less often over the years. On September 18, 2008, The K.G.B. announced a reunion show scheduled for October 25 as a fundraiser for Barack Obama's Presidential campaign.
The band's members are:
- Eric Tobias - Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Keys
- Ben Kramer - Keyboard, Backup vocals, Trumpet
- Johnny Genius - Guitar, Fun Machine, Oboe, Nose Flute
- Tom Peyton - Drums, Backup Vocals, Valve Trombone
- Moses Kremer - 1963 Fender Precision 4 string electric bass guitar
- Double Agent - split album with Alien Spy, 1997
- The Space Cadet EP - Dreamworks Records, 2000
- The K.G.B. - Dreamworks Records, 2001
Through a connection made by their lawyer, Toby plays the main character in the video for Green Day's Warning, from the album of the same name. Through yet another lucky connection, The K.G.B. got to send their entire collection of songs to the music director at MTV, as such, their songs can often be heard as background music of many of MTV's most popular shows, as well as programs such as America's Next Top Model. Johnny Genius works at Skyline Studios in Oakland and helped record the album Decomposer by The Matches as well as numerous other artists, and is currently recording The Phenomenauts
This band is credited with causing the band Alien Spy to dissolve.
- The K.G.B. at allmusic
- The K.G.B.'s Unofficial MySpace Page
- Pailboy - Toby and Johnny's active group