In the latest installment of A Hardcore Conversation we talk to Kyle Toucher (rhymes with voucher) from Oxnard, California’s own Dr. Know.
Not only did he shred guitar and vocal chords in Dr. Know, Kyle has also made a career in the special effects world and is now a novelist. Read on dear reader!
You are Toucher, guitarist and singer or Dr. Know, correct?
No, but I play him on TV.
Were you born and raised in Oxnard, California?
Indeed I was. Back then it was an agriculture/beach town no one knew about, in a lot of ways dependent on the two nearby Navy bases―Port Hueneme, where a Naval Construction Battalion was stationed (SEABEES), and Point Mugu Pacific Missile Test Center, where my father worked as an civilian engineer in their Fleet Weapons division.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom when we were little, then went back to teaching. Dig this: my mother taught at the high school I attended. I never ditched school, I can tell you that.
What was it like growing up there and how did the locals react to punk rockers?
I was born in the early '60s, so society was completely different than it is now. In the seventies when I was coming of age, the place was great. You could hitch-hike to the beach without ending up wrapped in a shower curtain, weed didn't make you hallucinate, muscle cars ruled, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were active, it was a huge event when the Stones toured and played five nights in LA, The Exorcist scared the hell out of everyone.
By the time a friend of mine and I discovered the Sex Pistols, Damned, and Ramones, they were considered so far underground you needed a shovel. As for the locals, punk rock was something you shouldn't have been doing in those days, so you opened yourself up to a little grief.
Honestly, I never dug the buzz cut, so I put an end to that pretty quickly....then took shit from other punk rock folks who didn't think I was punk enough. It's all tribal.
How did you get into music and how did you discover metal and punk?
When I was about twelve, Late 1974 or early 1975 this would be, I swooned deeply for rock and roll. I'd already been very aware of it, but in those days I was inundated with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, T.Rex, and the Stones. Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore, Johnny Winter―all those bad ass guitar slingers grabbed my attention very early on.
The final the nail in my coffin was undoubtedly Black Sabbath. Those guys were the perfect meld of what led me to powerful music and the gloomy images of the films I loved. I was all in after that, man―if I didn't at least try to play guitar, I'd never be satisfied.
My brother hipped me to Parliament and Stevie Wonder, Elton John and an endless stream of slamming seventies funk. Johnny “Guitar” Watson...check that cat out. My sister was fully into Jesus Christ Superstar and Joni Mitchell, even Streisand. My old man was all-in with Dixieland and Benny Goodman, my mother a fan of Elvis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Music everywhere. Even radio was cool back then.
The 1977 punk rock revolution followed, exposing me to the Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Damned, Germs, D.O.A., and Black Flag. I went to piles of shows, saw everyone. The first-gen Los Angeles hardcore scene taught me one thing that giant stadium shows did not: I could be in a band, it was attainable. By 1981, I could think of little else, and Dr. Know was born.
We played shitty clubs, made records, hit the road, played shittier clubs, and eventually nice venues. Later on we toured with The Exploited, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, played shows with everyone everywhere: DRI, Corrosion of Conformity, Agnostic Front, UK Subs, Discharge, Testament, Megadeth, D.O.A., Scream, you name it. Played great gigs, met great people. What a way to spend your 20s.
What got you into playing guitar?
These records made it roil in me like the chest-burster in Alien:
- Black Sabbath, Vol. 4
- Robin Trower, Robin Trower Live
- Johnny Winter, Captured Live!
- Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush, Live
Notice the trend of live records. Back then, these acts would toss out a studio record every year, tour the piss out of them, then fling out a live record. But these were guitar players in their prime, absolute monsters on the instrument, right before the Van Halen revolution. Music was a new experience then, of course, nothing but discovery. I still listen to these albums at sixty years old.
I was disappointed by KISS Alive! I'd already heard Vol. 4 and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by the time this record was a blip on my scope. I remember the cover art in the store; the candles, the smoke, the crazy make up―and I wanted to love them.
When I finally heard the album and it was uninteresting kegger rock, I felt like I'd been cheated, as they talked the talk...but they couldn't come near to what Sabbath had already done. I understand why people loved them, and I did see their first reunion full make up tour and it was fun as hell, but their music and image―to me at least―harbored an enormous incongruence.
The first concert I ever saw was Pink Floyd on the Animals tour. At 14, something of that scale intimidates your hopes as a guitar player, musician, whatever. At least it did me. I saw the Ramones and Runaways in 1978, and again, in a large venue (Santa Monica Civic) and it still seemed too big to attain.
Black Flag at the Starwood in Hollywood changed all that. Dez Cadena on vocals. Gregg Ginn. Chuck Dukowski, Robo. What a monster. Real. In your face. Regular cats. Zero production. Loud. Feral. You can be part of this, that said. It was very inspiring.
Was Dr. Know your first band?
How did you guys get together?
After the Black Flag show I mentioned above, the die was cast. Robin Cartwright, my best friend as a kid and still today, were ready to roll. He had a ramshackle drum kit, I had a cheap Korean Les Paul copy. I may have already had my Sunn Beta Lead 410 by then. He was friends with Ismael Hernandez (Dr. Know bass player) via a high school friendship, and he and his brothers were already deep in that first-gen punk rock scene. Ismael brought in Joey Pina on vocals, and we could practice at his punk rock party house in Ventura.
This was 1981.
Who came up with the Dr. Know name?
Me. It was originally Dr. No, like the Ian Fleming book/James Bond film. As a hopeful lad I thought: What if it all takes off and Fleming's widow comes after us? So we changed it to "Know." Ismael did the lettering in the let's say "Choloesque" flair of the time, complete with spider, and a year or two later his brother Jaime drew the witch at my request, modeled as a hybrid of Dinah Cancer with a little Elvira tossed in.
How’d you end up with a Dan Armstrong guitar? Were you inspired by Greg Ginn?
Oh sure, I was inspired by that. Also, I'd seen Keith Richards with one and Geezer Butler played an Armstrong bass in the photos inside―that's right, you guessed it―Vol. 4. It is by far the coolest looking guitar there's ever been. Toucher's law: Never play a guitar that isn't shaped like a woman.
Was your Armstrong modified at all?
It is now. A skinhead pile-up in 1985 Grand Rapids, MI smashed the original Masonite pickguard. I shipped the guitar home, and Valley Arts Guitar fashioned a new, black pickguard from a Rickenbacker 4001 pickguard, I believe. I had a spare with me, a 1974 Gibson L6S, and had to play that for the remainder of the 1985 tour.
I bought that at a local store in Oxnard for 350.00. Now those guitars are at least 10x that. Mine is a 1969, A339D, a very low serial number. I used to have several pickups for it, the RT (Rock Tone) the CWT (Country Tone) and something else. Both single coils, so they buzzed.
I believe it was Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag) that gave me a Dan Armstrong Humbucker, which I hope to God I still have. Years later, Glade Rasmussen built a sled that accommodates a modern pickup, wired it to the female banana clips, and it slides into the housing.
The neck on that thing is a baseball bat, it sounds like hell, but it looks great. Kind of like KISS Alive!, yeah?
Is that the guitar you used to record the Dr. Know albums?
Plug In Jesus was recorded with a 1975 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe with velvet hammer pickups. I borrowed it from a friend a couple of blocks over, a man by the name of Ray Holguin. He was very accommodating to a young dumbass that knew nothing, and also trusted me with his vintage 1964 Firebird. But that first album is that Les Paul, a BOSS Heavy Metal Pedal, and that snarling Sunn Beta Lead 410 combo, which may may not have also been pushing a 4X12 with cheap Pyle Driver speakers. Can't recall....but I think it was just the 4x10s.
- Burn was the L6S I just mentioned, into the Sunn.
- This Island Earth was the Armstrong, into a Sunn Beta Lead head pushing two 4X12s.
- Wreckage In Flesh was my Armstrong into a MXR Distortion Plus, then a 1987 JCM 800 head with 6550 power tubes.
Should never have sold that Marshall. I did not really understand Marshalls at the time, and I grievously missed my Sunn. I sold it to a cat that was an avid Marshall fiend, he had a wall of them, and a guitar tone that just slayed.
In the mid-'90s, his band, Fearless Vampire Killers, and mine, a band called Stigmata, shared a cool practice space...but it ultimately got ripped off by drug addicts. The head went with it, along with my old-school Cry Babies and a black Ibanaez and my first Strat.
You have a very distinct guitar sound. How’d you get that? And has anyone ever mentioned that your sound is kind of similar to Tom G Warrior from Celtic Frost? And were you into those guys?
Celtic Frost was never really on my radar. I was an Iommi nerd, chasing that tone. Woody Weatherman from COC, however, fucking nailed Iommi. Listen to the guitar sound on a 1975 live Sabbath release. It's in the Super Deluxe Sabotage, and previously released as Asbury Park or Past Lives, something like that.
Iommi's tone is absolutely monstrous. Everyone may be bored with "War Pigs," but the hammer, the grind of those riffs on that live album version is mind-blowing. "Symptom of the Universe," too. God almighty. No one was doing that in the mid-'70s. No one came close.
Guitar tone is a huge thing for me. I'm a huge Robin Trower nerd, too. Been chasing that with my Stratocasters for some time as well. You should see my univibe collection. But finding the spot where the guitar fits in the frequency gradient I suppose is the key. I used to scoop out all the mids because it sounded fat and scary.
In a lot of cases you end up in a frequency war with the bass, and you'll lose. So that's a war best avoided. Jimmy Page certainly knew that. Example: "Immigrant Song." Seems cool enough as the guitar is chugging along in the beginning. When [John Paul] Jones drops in with that bass right before the vocals...BOOM. Same thing in "Whole Lotta Love." All that bottom comes in and destroys, with the guitar not in the way at all.
Once I moved over to Triple Rectifiers, I really became aware of the guitar's place in the spectrum. And of course, a lot of it is in the way you touch the instrument. But if everything is crazy out of control gain with no tone shaping, your guitar is merely a triggering device for you amplifier, whether it's an expensive Bogner or a cheapie Bugera.
I interviewed Ismael Hernandez a couple years ago and he told me your ideal for Dr. Know was for you guys to sound like “Black Sabbath and the Germs had a baby." Is that true?
[Laughs] Yes, that rings a bell. Seems accurate at the time. I think we came close, certainly on Plug-In Jesus. That goddamn Germs album and Discharge's first two albums were very influential.
Your lyrics in Dr. Know tended to lean towards horror and sci-fi types of subjects as opposed to a lot of your peers, who were singing about “the scene," parents and sometimes politics etc. How’d that happen?
I don't gripe about my life. I never skateboarded, either. I didn't care what people did at shows as long as they let us play and kept it bullshit-free. So, there was no fuel there for songs. Too much me me me in that myopic approach, dig? Great for some bands that made it work, but definitely not my bag.
As for the horror elements, well, I had a lot of horror input as a youngster (Universal monsters, Mexican vampire films, '50s science fiction), and I read piles of Lovecraft and other things in my twenties. That's going to ooze out...so much so I'm writing novels in the horror genre these days. I wrote a lot about war and the global move toward tyranny. Look how prescient that turned out to be.
Were you at all inspired by the Misfits in this regard? And what was it like playing a show with them back then?
Not at all. However, we played with them in 1982, I think. Brandon [Cruz, star of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father with Bill Bixby] was still in the band then, so that's how far back that was. They were like KISS, but delivered on the sinister element. Never had any of their records, but always enjoyed them live. I recall the power of Glenn's voice, he sang instead of screamed in key. Michael Poulsen of Volbeat was certainly influenced by him, but Poulsen is even more powerful.
The Misfits put on a great show, spitting in the face of punk rock purists that wanted everything stripped down to various levels of poverty and incompetence. "Look! They can't play...isn't that refreshing?" No, it isn't.
A great approach and high entertainment value is really what people want, despite any virtue-signaling, and the Misfits delivered. I do recall that Glenn had just been tattooed, and a big dripping Misfits logo on his arms was slathered in vaseline. Good times. Young and clueless, we were.
Some of your lyrics have sort of an anti modern technology stance but given your later and current involvement in state of the art special effects, you’re definitely not a luddite. What’s that all about?
Fire is a good servant, but a cruel master.
How’d you guys hook up with Mystic Records?
An early compilation album called We Got Power (Party Or Go Home), I think each song had to be under a minute. We had a demo, and a song called “Saviour," written by Robin Cartwright and myself, was handed over. Apparently they induced a questionnaire asking buyers which bands stood out, and as far as I'm told, we were one of them.
Not long after came It Came From Slimey Valley, brought to us by the guys in Circle One. Whether it was John Macias or Mike Vallejo, I can't recall, but I think it was John. Gibson Les Paul deluxe on that one, too, I might add.
Do you have any memories from the recording sessions for the Plug-In Jesus record?
Yes. 12 songs in eight hours, recorded live.
Dr. Know was doing full nationwide tours pretty early on when a lot of your contemporaries were not able to do that. How’d you guys pull that off?
All credit goes to [Dr. Know drummer] Rick Heller. The guy was a bulldog. Booked the tours himself, all on hot telephone credit card numbers. Remember that?
Yes, I do! Did you consider Dr. Know to be a part of the whole “Nardcore” scene?
Absolutely. Ismael coined the phrase.
Do you remember this show in Philly from October of ‘84? My teenage band Positive Hate opened for you guys there.
Actually, I do remember Positive Hate and I can tell you why. What was with the red-headed guitar player? I remember Ismael mentioning he looked afraid of his Telecaster. Wide-eyed apprehension as he watched his fret hand. Always stuck with me.
I had no idea you were in that band. That's hilarious.
There’s a good chance he was frying on acid that night so that might explain that [laughs]. Another one of my old bands, Heart of Darkness, played with you guys on the This Island Earth tour, on the Penn State University campus, do you remember that show?
I do. The record had just come out that week. Copies were shipped to us in Pennsylvania so we could sell them on the road. That was a fun tour, but I became awfully ill with strep throat not long after. I holed up in a Howard Johnson's for days recovering.
For that album Dr Know got signed to Death Records/Metal Blade Records. How’d you guys make that happen? I asked Ismael this before but I’ll also ask you too: when I was hanging out with you guys before the Penn State show I asked how you got on that label and one of you made a pornographic hand gesture towards their mouth (if ya know what I mean). Can you confirm or deny?
[Laughs] Always deny the fellatio. Josh Pappe, then in DRI on bass, advocated for us. Like John Macias, he's no longer on Earth. He and I got along great. Hilarious son of a bitch, that man.
Anything stand out from the recording of that one?
Blow. Escobar days, you know. I should have double tracked the rhythm guitar. First record I used a wah pedal. A lot of that record is probably live. Blow.
Dr Know played with Discharge on their Grave New World tour, what was that like and did you like that album?
I spoke to Andy Ford about that the other day. We loved Discharge. Played with them twice, one in Goleta and once a Fenders in LA. I honestly don't recall if the Goleta show was on the Grave New World tour. They got intensely rejected by the crowd at Fenders in Long Beach. That was rough. People wanted to hear Why and Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing, and Cal pranced around squealing in a falsetto. Not a hit.
As for the record, the band wasn't bad, they played well and some of the riffs hooked and grooved, but it was a hard departure from the Discharge everyone knew. Her Majesty's Government moved away a bit from all-out assault from their previous records, even a little Sabbath-vibe on "Anger Burning." But Grave New World felt like it was trying too hard. I realize they were trying to expand musically, but the vocal thing was a bad call. Also, lots of whammy bar.
Old joke: What's the worst thing about whammy bars?
People have a tendency to use them.
Did you prefer working with Metal Blade or Mystic?
Oh, Metal Blade by far.
Were you into the other bands on the Death Records label, like, COC and DRI?
Great cats. We played with both bands―DRI quite a few times―and it was always a blast and great, crazy shows. I remember we arrived at a venue and DRI was headlining. Spike Cassidy had twin Marshall stacks already on stage. I gasped at the hugeness of it.
I thought: "We're doing something wrong here, fellas. We need to be on a more professional level like these cats."
After the tours for This Island Earth you completely changed the Dr Know lineup for the next album (Wreckage In Flesh). What happened there?
Long story. Too much to type. That kind of shit happens in bands, you know.
What was touring that album like? Did you guys successfully transfer to a more metal audience?
The merge was well under way by that time, absolutely. Which I always thought was great.
Why did Dr. Know eventually break up?
Everything became a hassle, lots of booze, never could get to the next level professionally...no real management, there was no incentive for anyone of real gravitas to take us on as client, to be honest. We saw a lot of bands just blowing right past us.
'Wreckage In Flesh' really didn't do so well, either. Metal Blade, if I recall correctly, wanted to hear new material before committing to a new record―which is their absolute right of course―and we didn't have a lot. Inspiration waned. It broke my heart and I wandered for a while after that. I was 28.
Slayer covered “Mr Freeze” on their punk covers album, Undisputed Attitude. Were you stoked about that? Did you guys ever play shows with them back in the day?
Never played with Slayer, no. But my VFX career would never had become airborne had not Slayer covered “Mr. Freeze." I however, looked upon that as an opportunity. I was broke at the time, and the dough I received allowed me to buy a decent computer (this was 1997) and learn the software that led me into the VFX game. My Emmys are a direct result of that.
When I finally met Kerry King I told him the story (in far greater detail), he couldn't believe it. Slayer is responsible for kick starting a 25-year career in CGI. How about them apples?
Nice! So, as you said, you start working in special effects for shows like Star Trek: Voyager, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Were you a fan of the original Galactica?
I never dug the original Battlestar Galactica. Same shots over and over. Lorne Greene in a cape. Robo Dog. When that show hit TV in the late '70s I was way into weed and Black Sabbath. The reboots took a far more gritty approach. Had a great time on that show, and after a certain period of time, they just let the VFX team make shit up―as long as it cut in nicely.
You mentioned you won a couple Emmys for your work on Battlestar Galactica (congrats!). Did you attend the ceremonies? What was that like?
Been to the Emmys several times―but full transparency here: The “technical” Emmys for the working stiffs (lighting, sound, VFX, makeup, etc) are held a week before the Actors and all those cats. Still, it's super fun, you do the tux, you're nervous when your category comes up. Absolutely.
I was part of a great team, believe me. I have eight nominations and two wins. But those days of my career are way gone. Last time we were there was 2013 for Defiance. It was a great life experience, I've been very blessed to have such things, believe me.
Food was always good. But terrible bourbon. I mean, bad news.
How did you feel about the various “Dr. Know” lineups throughout the years that various people did without you?
How would you like to receive terrible, lurid photos of your wife? Same thing.
I hear ya, man. That sucks! Eventually you bring back Dr. Know with most of the Wreckage In Flesh lineup. How did that come about?
Seemed like the time. We had the openings in our schedules, we'd all grown up and older, ready to re-tune and re-tool the songs and make everything as tight and snarling as we could make it. Agreed on a tuning, finally. That helped. Found a good drummer that listened. Trained and drilled.
You recently released a demo of a song from 2016 that was going to be from a new Dr. Know album. Will that album ever be completed? And are there more songs you might release from it in the meantime?
It's doubtful that will ever come to fruition, but hell, who knows. There are a few more tunes lying around that are in the same state as “Tell Me There's No Devil," which we released on the same day as my novel Live Wire. You may indeed see them...but hopefully before my next novel comes out, because that may be awhile.
Although these are finished demos, they're intended as guide tracks for recording the songs for real with full guitar rigs, live drums, the whole shebang. We had some great titles for the record too, but I'll keep those in my back pocket for now. Probably would have been a good idea to bring a ProTools rig to a few shows and record those, too....but that didn't happen either. Toward 2014 and 2015 we were playing like monsters. Sorry about that.
So yeah, in 2023 you release two books: Life Returns and Live Wire. I just read Life Returns and it’s great, I loved all the lyrics from the song being interspersed throughout. What made you decide to do this?
It's explained in the author's note at the end of the story, but it's essentially a bridge between what I did then with Dr. Know and what I'm doing now. I wanted the people that liked the band to come along for this ride, too―and the best way to do that was to start with a recognizable thing. Life Returns was a perfect vehicle for that, an old-school revenge from the grave story fans already knew...but I of course expanded on it and wove it into the mythos/world-building in all my fiction writing.
It's a quick read, and a straight-up horror tale with real characters and freaky occult dealings. What really happened in that house that night? Only one way to find out, and it is stark raving free. What more could you want from a fully realized Dr. Know tune?
Download it for free, and don't hesitate to leave a review.
Did you always have a backstory in mind for that song? And do you think you might do more in that vein? Mr. Freeze comes to mind. Or the man who lives in a cave from “The Shadow of Progress."
No, not until I started writing it and made the conscious decision to set it in Walpurgis County, the dreaded nexus, the horrendous setting of a lot of the things I write. So the idea is that for fans of the band, this is an easy introduction to all of that. Even if you're not familiar with Dr. Know, the story stands on its own―that's the entire idea behind choosing Life Returns.
Writing fiction is not easy, but if you discover that you have a flair for it, it's never too late to start. And I felt pulled toward it, especially when the Covid nonsense opened a huge door of opportunity. This is the result...not just Life Returns and Live Wire, specifically, but focusing on getting a writing career airborne, no matter how high it ultimately flies. You're a pussy if you don't at least try, right?
Indeed! I haven’t read Live Wire yet (ordered the paperback!) but I could see Life Returns being an awesome series or movie. Is there a possibility of that happening?
Thanks for buying the book and your support, truly. And don't hesitate to leave a review. Live Wire is gigantic in places. Lots of moving parts, psycho action sequences and deep character exploration. The tagline I wrote for it is “Black Magic Meets Big Tech...What Could Go Wrong?”
On the outer layer the bulk of the story centers around people hiding in a gas station while high-tension towers prowl the desert, it is far deeper than that Action Movie overlay. A sinister organization, Medusa Engineering, summons (intentionally or not...you be the judge!) a dark entity through the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico. Upon its arrival it emits what I call The Signal through any resonant surface, electronics, etc., which burrows deep into the psyche of those vulnerable, and recussitates deep regrets, shame, guilt, and the suffering that goes along with it.
As our cast wrangles that inner struggle, the world around them goes crazy with giants and destruction. It's a lot to handle, and, well, not everyone makes it out alive.
At dawn the confrontation takes place on Route 60, human resolve in the face of unfathomable mass and the nexus of its power. And Medusa Engineering, of course, has an overarching interest in all of it...
I have the film rights to both pieces. Live Wire wouldn't be cheap to make as written, that's for sure. The VFX budget would hoover up a pile of greenbacks. But Life Returns could make a cool short film for not a lot of dough. Run out the car and get your checkbook and we'll make it happen.
I’ll have my people call your people for sure! What else are you up to these days? Any chance of more Dr. Know shows?
Plug-In Jesus turns 40 next year. I'd like to commemorate that in some way, I just don't know how yet. I'd better get on it in one way or another, yeah? More writing projects are under way, and believe me, there is a lot of stuff that has not been released.
Live Wire, a full-throttle, top fuel Horror/Sci-Fi hybrid, is my first novel―at the tender age of 60―and I do not intend for it to be the last. Early reviews have been good, people like the unholy freak-out factor that permeates the story. It goes big, it goes deep, and gets bloody.
Are you in touch with the past members of Dr. Know?
Not really, no. Tim Harkins [guitar player on Wreckage In Flesh] and I yak all the time, the others, not really.
You bet. Kirk Out!