Wait. Before you start reading this, humor me and please start listening to some horrible inspirational music; nothing with vocals. I suggest something from one of the Narnia scores. That’s it… Go to YouTube and search it in a new tab. Pretty much anything from any Narnia movie will work… ready, push play… and we’re off!
Matt Toka has the ability to change lives. Maybe it’s because you can watch one of his videos and think maybe he was one of those crazy kids downtown that asked you for money and then said something smart-assed when you handed him a five spot. Maybe it’s because you can laugh uproariously while he chats about his one week of work experience at Wendy’s and the fear of Band-Aid sandwiches. Or maybe it’s because he jokes about messing himself due to explosive chipotle. Regardless of what is, Matt Toka is the green haired punker that everybody should be welcoming into their lives over the course of 2012. Did I mention that he used to play acoustic stuff on Hollywood Boulevard next all of the costumed-crazies running around posing for pictures with people?
Alright, we’re done with Narnia on YouTube, you can move on to something else. Back to Matt Toka. He used to front a band called Cherry Monroe that was briefly signed to Universal and then got dropped. This was back in 2004 and 2005 and his old band was supposed to be Toka’s ticket out of his hometown, Youngstown, Ohio. When Cherry Monroe got dropped, the band broke-up and Toka was back in Youngstown.
“I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio which is like a smaller scale Detroit,” Toka started while talking about his hometown. “Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it. From an early age, music has always been my escape and so I really just wanted to get out of Youngstown to see the world. I formed a band right out of high school. We got kicked out of every college campus, mall, gas station, and everywhere within a two hour radius of Youngstown. We got a record deal with Universal. Being just a kid I thought it was great. Everybody was just going to start handing me bags of money and I’m going to be on MTV Cribs. [laughs] I had no idea that’s not how the music industry works. After a couple of years the band got dropped and the only person that has that album is my mother.”
Going to L.A. was an easy decision for Toka but it was still a difficult move. Toka needed a fresh start and he needed to follow his dream. That wasn’t happening in Youngstown, so he picked up and headed to Los Angeles. Only, when he got to L.A., he didn’t have a lot, if anything. He started out basically homeless; playing his guitar on street corners.
“Things were on the downside with that band after being in it for two or three years,” said Toka. “And life in Youngstown was pretty f___ing rough. My family was going through some pretty heavy shit and my parents ended up getting divorced… My mother and grandfather ended up going to prison. So I just wanted to get out of that environment; it wasn’t healthy for me. I figured out that I’d rather be homeless in Los Angeles, than working a 9 to 5 anywhere else in the world.”
“I got to Los Angeles and started playing street corners with my acoustic guitar. I went to Hollywood Boulevard and took my acoustic guitar because I had nowhere else to really go and play there. It was definitely a humbling experience because it was pretty f___ing brutal. I’d also do any open mic night I could find and I did that for about a year and a half. After a while, I ran out of money and released a solo album that was super-heavy because I was super-depressed. One day I just told myself ‘whatever, f___ it.’ I wanted to get back to having fun again and recording stuff that wasn’t so heavy. It was the second that I let that all go, that everything really opened up.”
This is where things get interesting for Toka. A series of events happened after he pulled himself out of his rut and started having fun with music again.
“Shortly after that, like two or three weeks later I came across a blog that featured Asher Roth’s ‘I Love College,’” Toka remembered. “This was before he had a music video out or a release date or any of that stuff. My whole thing was, if I cover that song, as people go to search him as that song gets bigger people will discover my cover. It was like 2 o’clock in the morning and I was exhausted and my girlfriend at the time was so adamant about me covering this song. I was like, ‘he’s not going to be famous overnight.’ We got in this huge fight and I ended up sleeping on the couch.”
“The next morning he was all over CNN and all over Perez Hilton. He was flying out to be on Carson Daly and there was a terrorist on the plane. The guitar player tackled the terrorist and it’s all over the news and he was literally famous overnight. So I covered the song, put it on YouTube and his manager contacts me, literally that day, and says he can get me a record deal. Being in L.A. for three years I’d heard that every which way under the sun. He told me to meet him at the Beverly Hills Hotel and to bring my acoustic guitar. At the time, I didn’t understand I was walking into a record showcase. When I got there, Craig Kallman and Mike Caren were there from Atlantic Records. I played two songs for them on my acoustic guitar and they offered me a deal on the spot.”
The deal with Atlantic was just the beginning of his crazed return into the music industry. After signing with Atlantic, Toka and his management started the process of putting the pieces together to make an album. The biggest two pieces of Toka’s album- a song and a producer- would come on a day he was stuck in traffic.
“I was sitting in traffic and I just started singing ‘six six six’ over and over again,” said Toka. “I decided that I’m going to write the biggest f____ing party anthem ever written. It’s kind of my tribute to Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne, a lot of the pop punk shit I grew up on- Green Day’s Dookie being the first album that really started everything for me. So I wrote that song and shortly after, Rob Cavallo got to hear it; which is crazy. I had no idea that was even going to be an option. All of a sudden, I got a call from management saying ‘Rob heard the song and he wants to meet you.’ I literally shit my pants; I had to change my pants. This wasn’t a metaphor… this is a literal thing… I had really bad chipotle that day… “[laughs.]
“But seriously, I was really in shock because Dookie was the first album that I ever had and Green Day really started everything for me. I begged my mom to get me a guitar and from that point on I said, ‘I’m never doing homework again and I’m full-time perusing music.' For it to come full circle like that it was really a trip. I had to wait a year to start the record with Rob because he was working on Meat Loaf and My Chemical Romance so during that time I just wrote. After waiting about a year he was finished with his other two projects and we went into the studio and we made an album. And it was a dream come true. I can honestly say that the first day that I went into the studio was the happiest day of my life. Without a doubt. I was so overcome with joy. And we went in there for a couple of months and during that process Rob got appointed the chairman of Warner, and he fell in love with the album so much he pulled me off Atlantic and brought me to the Warner family.”
Matt Toka’s a funny guy and all of the jokes are fantastic, but if you take that humor away you’ve still got a ton of substance. After talking with Toka for a half hour I came away impressed. He experienced years of brutal turmoil. Maybe he got bitter and depressed, but he also overcame it. It’s ironic that this green-haired kid who sings party songs and rap covers could have a life story that could be turned into a movie shown on the Hallmark Channel. He’s got an awesome outlook on life and his story is a great example of resiliency.
“It was really crazy because with my other record deal I was really f___ed up,” said Toka. “I partied and I didn’t take it seriously and I thought success and an endless party would come quick. I messed that up because I didn’t take it seriously. It was really humbling having to start all over again, and it was amazing because in the span of two weeks… how much my luck changed.”
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