If not for a couple of guardian angels by the names of Mark and Brian, Toy Matinee's first album might never have gone "two-fifths gold," as singer-songwriter Kevin Gilbert sizes up his modest yet pleasantly surprising hit.
The rock band's debut record, "Toy Matinee," has sold 170,000 copies--with much of its momentum gathering after KLOS-FM disc jockeys Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps adopted the single "Last Plane Out," as their "unofficial favorite song," Gilbert said. The Los Angeles radio personalities invited Toy Matinee to perform on their popular morning show in October and have continued their crusade for the band.
"I owe my whole career to them," said Gilbert, 24.
In recent weeks, he has taken his good fortune on the road, touring nightclubs throughout California. Toy Matinee will appear at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday and Monday, following a performance at the Ventura Theater on Saturday. The tour continues with stops at the Strand in Redondo Beach on Wednesday and at the Roxy in Los Angeles on May 1.
Toy Matinee has undergone a few changes since its inception two years ago. In fact, Gilbert is the only original member on tour.
The band began as the brainchild of Gilbert and Patrick Leonard, who co-writes and produces Madonna's albums. Leonard "discovered" Gilbert while judging a Yamaha Rock Music Showcase competition in 1989. At that time, Gilbert was the lead in a San Jose-based band, Giraffe, which won $25,000 and a trip to Tokyo by placing first in the contest.
"He came backstage and said, 'Let's write some songs together,' " recalled Gilbert, now a Sherman Oaks resident. "One of the first things we wrote was 'Last Plane Out,' and we thought we should get some musicians together and record it as a band."
They rounded up several musicians, including Julian Lennon and Pink Floyd's Guy Pratt--all temporary members of a band assumed to be likewise temporary. The informal group recorded nine songs written by Gilbert and Leonard, then each went his separate way. Six months later, Reprise Records picked up the album.
"At first it didn't look like it would matter that I had an album but no band, because I thought it would just be a small record that no one would hear," Gilbert said. However, "Last Plane Out" slowly found a place on rock radio playlists--and Gilbert suddenly found himself the sole ambassador for Toy Matinee.
"I originally went out on acoustic guitar and did these goofy little publicity stints on radio programs by myself," Gilbert said. Eventually he linked up with another partner--singer and guitarist Marc Bonilla--to help him flesh out a new group of musicians to promote the "Toy Matinee" album.
His biggest break came last fall, when Mark and Brian made the record their personal cause and exposed KLOS listeners to a generous dose of Toy Matinee. Gilbert's album sold a quick 30,000 copies locally after his and Bonilla's performance on the radio program.
Gilbert believes that the disc jockeys' backing saved Toy Matinee from sinking into obscurity.
"We didn't have a huge corporate push behind us," he said. "It's very difficult for a company to stay behind a new band if the record isn't selling well, but after our success on the Mark and Brian show, Reprise took a new interest in pushing the album."
When it comes to songwriting, Gilbert says: "Lyrics are my thing. I get frustrated because there's so much good music and so little good lyrics. It's like songwriters go, ' Love, above --there, that rhymes, just slap it down.'
"Lyrics can be a form of literature," Gilbert added. "I've always enjoyed really looking at a song's lyrics and trying to figure out what they mean." He cited Sting, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and the band Steely Dan as influences in his own songwriting.
Toy Matinee's "Last Plane Out" is the sort of song that requires the listener to do a bit of analysis to decipher its intent:
Greetings from Sodom, how we wish you were here
The weather's getting warmer now that the trees are all cleared. . . .
I hope that someone saves a seat for me on the last plane out. "It's an updated Noah's Ark metaphor," Gilbert explained. "It's about that cynical attitude: 'I'm sure science will invent something to replace trees after we've destroyed all of them.' Like, when the party's over, we'll just go somewhere else. But there is no last plane out, there is nowhere else to go. When the party's over, we'll have to live in the mess we've created."
After this tour, Gilbert plans to cut a solo album for Reprise. Toy Matinee will go into hibernation until Leonard again has time to team up with the band's other half for a second venture.
"Patrick is a multiplatinum (record) producer, so it's totally understandable that Toy Matinee is not high priority for him," Gilbert said. "But he does want to get back together at some point down the line. I don't want to use the name Toy Matinee on an album unless Patrick has been a part of it.
"Meanwhile, I've got a great band to work with on my own. And I've had two years to write a lot of good stuff for my next album."
Toy Matinee will play Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $17.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.