If you haven’t heard of Toehider, you’re missing out. Chances are, you’ve heard Michael Mills’ brilliant contributions on Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon project, or maybe you saw his viral “Wuthering Heights” cover in the original key. Or maybe you’re cool and in the know and you’ve been a Toehider fan for years. Either way, Michael Mills’ incredible project is something to behold. Michael plays all the instruments and handles all of the complex vocals, and the result moves past the one-man-band novelty and truly creates something singular, as the resulting music stands as the unfiltered expression of Michael Mills’ brilliant and twisted mind.
Michael and his longtime collaborator, artist Andrew “Salty” Saltmarsh, asked fans to vote on 12 songs that would become his latest album, I LIKE IT!. The resulting album is a brilliant, diverse album, filled with humor and heart. From the power metal-esque “GO FULL BORE!”, to the folk inspired “Concerning Lix and Fairs”, to the synth-poppy “wellgivit”, to the prog metal funk of “Moon and Moron”, Toehider’s latest covers an insane amount of ground in just 12 songs. In this interview, Michael Mills talks about his project Toehider, his songwriting process, his highly productive Patreon, his latest album I LIKE IT!, and what might be on the horizon.
Tell us about your project, Toehider. How did it start? Where did the name come from?
More or less it was a response to getting fed up with working in a traditional “band” format. The band I was in previously fell apart due to people wanting to do different things, so it made sense just to do everything myself. The origins of the name… “toehoorder” means “listener” in dutch, and that’s pretty close!
Do you have something akin to a consistent writing “process”, or does it change from song to song? As a multi-instrumentalist, are there still certain instruments you primarily write on, or does it just depend on the song?
It’s definitely different for every song. I mainly write from a vocalist’s perspective, but lately have found my limited abilities as a keyboard player are actually helpful in getting a fresh angle on things.
You do just about everything on your albums yourself. Tell us about your rig/workstation/DAW. How has it evolved over the years to better handle your technical needs?
I’m an “in-the-box” guy, so not much in the way of outboard gear. The setup has been more or less the same since I started, I switched from Pro Tools to Reaper a few years ago though. And I’m a plugin junkie, I spend way too much money on plugins.
This album seems to lean into an 80’s aesthetic in parts, with heavy synth, big toms, and even a super sexy sax solo (“He’s There, And He Does That”). Tell us why you made that production choice.
I think my stuff has always had a bit of an 80’s thing going on. I love the 80’s and I feel like in the past few years people have wised up to how good the production values of 80’s music was. So, I guess that gave me the confidence to really embrace it.
Your music has an idiosyncratic and rare element- you’re able to incorporate levity and humor and even parody without being too hamfisted or in-your-face about it. Who were some of your influences in humor and storytelling that contributed to how you shared your lyrics and song?
I always approach it with the idea that I want my work to be a reflection of my personality. I feel all these emotions; happiness, sadness, funniness, anger, and all the bits in between, although I am conscious of passing over into “comedy music” or something. I’ve taken it to those extremes in the past but the important thing here is balance. But guys like Zappa and Weird Al are influences in the way they bring humour in.
You have a very productive Patreon! Tell us about what one could expect if they were to subscribe as one of your Patreons!
The new album was built by the patreon subscribers! So I basically recorded a bunch of songs, and I asked them to choose which 12 would be best for a “public” release. I also did a covers album recently exclusively for patrons. Next up I’ll be focusing on completing a concept album I’ve been working on.
That’s a pretty unique way to do things! Tell us about what made you decide to do your album this way, and how it guided production choices.
I just thought it would be a fun way to do things. Quite often in the past I would work on a song thinking that the fans would really enjoy it, but it gets very little interest from them (see “funnythings” from “GOOD”). And then other times I would spend literally half an hour on something and not give it much thought, to find that the fans are much more responsive (see “How Do Ghosts Work?” from “GOOD”). So I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no idea what I’m doing, so why not let the fans decide?
Andrew Saltmarsh is an important part of the Toehider universe. How did that artistic relationship begin?
We met on a forum he used to manage called ozprog. We bonded over old 80’s cartoons that no-one remembers and we just went from there.
You seem to have found a kindred spirit with Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon, as you have been featured on several albums (including his latest, Transitus), as well as live performances. Tell us about working with Ayreon. What is the process like? What is the best part of it all?
It’s been awesome, I owe so much to Arjen and his Ayreon Universe. It’s kinda like a fairy-tale really. A prog rock fairy tale.
With the release of I LIKE IT! out of the way, do you have anything on the horizon?
Yep for sure, a concept album is in the works, and hopefully once all this virus stuff is over, more tours and playing shows.
What’s your favorite plant, and why?
The Lotus Seed pod comes to mind. I’m trypophobic though, so I kinda love it and hate it at the same time
What fantasy race do you find most kinship with?
Orcs. Big brutish folks with bad teeth.