Tolliver: “The Thin Black Duke” Constantly Living On The Edge



He was once called “L.A.’s Queer Black Soprano”. After I watched his videos, I think Tolliver’s description is “If Iggy Pop was Marvin Gaye, who did lots of jazz with his heroin.”  When I told him my interpretation, his response was, “Those are the very words I want on my tombstone.” He does not wear shirts, plays in different bands every night, and literally is unable to be anchored down to anything. So, this pandemic lockdown has been very interesting for his creative side but living on the edge as he does, his whole life is his creative side. He’s also a gay porn film editor, and by far the most eccentric person I have ever met. He releases more music than I can keep track of, and just released a single called “Petty”, but look through his catalog, it’s going to go in as many directions as his ADHD wants to take you. 

Read, watch, enjoy.

Jeremy Hinks: So, how is it now, being in lockdown? Seeing as you play gigs every other night, how is it working for you at the moment?

Tolliver: I write for L.A. Records, a couple there, I write for the magazine, and I write commercials for his company so no shortage of work.


JH: Wow, busy guy. So last we talked and the world came to an end in between, you talked about not buying groceries, and the video for “Keep It Wet For Me.” Let’s talk about how the end of the world is going for you in that regard?

T: Actually, now I do buy groceries, I have to, that only started because of the pandemic. It’s wild, I mean, I can actually have something to eat in the house “WHENEVER”, it’s so bizarre to have this, because it is so not anything I lived like for so long. But I moved recently to a new area, and there is a 7-11 on the corner, so now the options are never-ending if I wanna eat something gross I can even go there. So, yeah back on “Keep It Wet.”

JH: Well, I have to tell you, I still watch it every once in a while, when I need something INSANE, that is kind of my go-to. I loved the whole amulet thing strangling you, how it sort of looks like a python around your neck, and the anxiety in the water, because… well, you can’t swim. Even though it’s a shallow pool, you really are being taken over by the water in that video.


T: Yeah, that was my favorite video that I have ever done, it’s about facing your fears in a very simple way. I can’t swim for shit, and my friend the director said he wanted to get me in the pool and get these real emotions and experiences of me trying to deal with it and my fears. So all of that is very real. I have all these fears, and I’m terrified, and I get this amulet and I become a god, and I conquer it, I can swim. That felt good, you see, we all have our little things we use as our armor against the world, especially right now, it is horrifying, you’re not going to believe this but, today I was wearing a suit, a white suit all-white silk pants, shirt, everything. Because I just wanted to feel good, by looking good, for just one minute even. I am tired of wearing sweat pants with pizza stains on them and looking unkempt, so getting dressed up, and looking good, that was my armor for the day.

JH: Wow, I guess this is world-changing, you wore a shirt, you never owned one. You are losing your Iggy Pop man, you wear a shirt now? Though, describing yourself, you look like one of the guys in “A Clockwork Orange.”

T: Well, my clothes have gotten more intense in the last year, I am wearing a lot of white satin shirts, and white shiny shoes, white pants, just going glam.

JH: So, get a sequin tie, and sing some New York Dolls, and some T-REX, The Sweet.


T: Hey, The Dolls, I know those guys, my buddy’s fave band, I have to say, there is no real box that I fit myself into musically, or what I listen to or am influenced by.

JH: So, that helps the flow of this conversation, you were one day, flailing about in the water, dying and becoming a god, then the next single “Twisted” you are, well, wearing a shirt, but the clock ticking, that was completely comedic compared to where you had just been.

T: Yeah “Twisted”, that was a day when I got in a really bad fight with significant other at the time, and we had a really bad fight. I left the house and went to this after-hours party, and I’m getting really fucked up to avoid him, and thinking about him. The clocks are me wasting time, smashing these clocks wasting my time doing cocaine, and literally, in the video, they are huffing flower at me to look like cocaine. The idea of the video was stolen, and also a direct tribute to this gay Mexican singer who is gorgeous, and beautiful Juan Gabriel. He has a video of him in a room, all sexy beautiful, with candles everywhere and he is this “Latin Lover”. And my roommate was obsessed with him at the time, so I decided to do the same thing, but then throw all this other imagery of the clocks, and wasting time, and just making it mine.


JH: So, the new song, “Petty” then, there you are wearing a shirt or a leotard? When you were on the stage are the guys in there sprinkling glitter or cocaine on “your gear” in that video?

T: Actually, it was glitter. SO, “Twisted” got me into doing the music like “Petty”, let me explain, 2016 was a hella bad year for a lot of people, it was an absolute shitshow bad year for me. I was running out of the apartment all the time, doing drugs, and monogamy was not a concept in my life or my partner’s life. And you can hear it in my voice, I’m in a better place now, but that hedonism is part of what I want in my life, and my friend who directed twisted said “You know, you have never done a video where you are just “SUPERQUEER”, or blatant. So the idea of me being in a unitard with my gear hanging out, and dancing like a stripper for a bunch of dudes, and they are tossing glitter on my gear.

JH: Oh yeah, that was funny, I noticed it, it looked more like a regular dive bar stage, and filmed in the daytime in the off hours for the venue. I only say that cause I have filmed “live” videos for bands in the staged situation, so we could get decent angles, and film it without the mess of a real live performance.


T: YES, you obviously know the trade secrets, “Cover the windows, it has to look real”. It was filmed at my favorite place called “Akbar”, and the guy who shot it, he has all these ideas, brilliant visual guy, we have worked together since 2016. So he pitched it to me, and I thought sure, I can show off my body. That song was about my roommate and his girlfriend.

JH: Oh yeah, you kept saying “She is so petty”, “She is so…..” this or that, I mean, nothing wholesome in the video that’s for sure. I mean, it’s not as bad as the gay porn you edit, but…

T: Well, it was like, he sent me a text and said: “You have 30 days to leave”. And that was so shocking because we had all lived together, and it was fine, no real fights or anything, but he suddenly says I have to move out, not even “Hey, do you think you could move out and give us some space” it was “We don’t want to drag this out, you have 30 days to move out”. So I got that text, and I wrote that song in the next hour after that, then we tracked it in the next three hours. So it was very literal, but all my songs are about literal events.

JH: I could tell you were having a good time with that, there you are with the wig, then the “Wonder Woman” change FLASH, I’m not that anymore, I’m this… Storytelling in the video, what was that about? Being literal, what did that mean.


T: Well, it was metaphorically actually. I talk about being queer in interviews, but I don’t use pronouns really, this is me actually “Coming Out” and stripping saying “This is who I am”. The wig was actually fun for me, I had just recently signed with “Side one Dummy”, they do a lot of punk acts, and I had this show at a place they call “The High Hat”, and this time for my show, it was really awkward cause there were only 3 people there. I was wearing this bright pink wig and a jumpsuit. Then they called the next day and said “Never wear the wig again please”, and I LOVED the wig it was just gorgeous, so I went out and bought 10 more wigs, one is curly red, or neon green. So I wore them in the video to say “I’ll show you”. In the end, they liked the video, so that was good.

Photo Credit Lisa Johnson

JH: Well, it was really different, it wasn’t a drag show, and I didn’t see a pole there, so you weren’t stripping, so this was performance art outside the realm of the norms, even the norms I’ve come to see in the queer world, but it made you uncomfortable being so in your face, THEN you are wearing your glasses in this video. Totally juxtaposed to the “Hot sexy performer, suave, sophisticated” and here I am in my glasses, with men throwing glitter in my crotch.

T: That was a one-take video, and it was for logistics, I have terrible vision, and I didn’t want to be looking cross-eyed at the camera. One take had to be the rawest and real, and we prefer it that way with a perfectionist in the making and editing.


JH: You did pay tribute to David Bowie, we all love him and miss him, and there you are the “Thin Black Duke.”

T: I haven’t really done much Bowie from that era, but I was doing a show in Minneapolis, It was on “First Avenue” do you know that area, where they filmed “Purple Rain”?

JH: I do, but for different reasons, I never was a big Prince fan, “Purple Rain” was a monumental album, like “SGT Peppers” and “Ziggy Stardust”, but beyond that, I find that other people do Prince songs better than Prince.

T: HOOOOOOOOO WOW, did I hear you really say that?


JH: For real, Cyndi Lauper did his cover of “When You Were Mine”, it was wonderful, his version was like giving myself a root canal. That speaks more for Cindy Lauper than it does for Prince.

T: Well, this was for a cat rescue event called “Rock for Pussy”, and I did “Starman” and I was all done up, had the lightning bolt across my face. And after that, I really got into him and saw his career. I got obsessed with him after a while. So when I was going to name this one,I named it “The Thin Black Duke.” There was that time in his career he would go around in public acting like a famous person, wearing super outlandish clothes, and people would treat him as such because they thought he really was.


JH: So, you know Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop were all best friends right? Like they are the “Holy Trilogy of Rock and Roll”, Lou being the GOD of rock and roll.

T: That’s the thing Lou is fantastic, but still I know NOTHING really about Iggy Pop.

JH: And you ARE the black Iggy Pop man, you need to get into him, that will finish your musical spiritual journey. With you wearing the wigs telling them to stuff it, was like Iggy’s “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” about being the slave to the record label doing what THEY want. And now you are pulling Bowie into the mix. So, in lockdown, are you making more music now? Doing more now cause you can’t go anywhere?

T: I have actually been doing a lot of recording, sessions, I get hired to record for commercials, being all inspirational. But I have this side project called “The Moisture Boys” and we have no brand or image control, just keep putting out music, constantly. Which is easy if you LIVE in a studio, literally, and have all the gear around to play, record, and produce. This new EP coming out, these songs were recorded in November, and I’ve been hearing these forever, but man, label hassle gets in the way.


JH: So, you said before that you were the son of a preacher, and left that when your dad died, you brought that up on the new press release here. You are opening this up for the world then?

T: When they were writing the bio piece about me, that came back up, and that shit always comes back to haunt me. My dad died when I was 11, and 2 years later I was done going to church. BUT, I LOVE GOSPEL MUSIC, and the stuff you grew up on that hits you hard. There is a lot of shame in that, and I don’t really talk to my family, I know the reason for that is because I post stuff on the internet that is so crazy, I have an Instagram story that is just the word “CUM” right now. IF they saw that, I don’t want to have to explain that. BUT, Gospel is such a big part of me, though it’s not “Gospel” on the album, there are aspects of it, chantey, and sing along parts to it. I’ve been obsessed with this singer “Serpent with Feet”, listening to him in the shower, he sang this one passage and it reminded me of church, and I started crying because I can’t stop thinking about it. I still feel like I’m trying to prove to my family that I am worth something. Even though I ran away, stopped talking to them, and am hiding from them, its to say “Look, it’s okay that I left, because you can now see what I was trying to create”.

JH: I see are going through these ideas, then say “I want to tell these people to repent for their sins.” What was that one about?

T: You know, I have been trying to figure that out, I have gone in waves, 2016 was a bad year for me, I was doing all kinds of drugs, even the night before the biographer talked to me for that piece, I was up all night high as hell. And there is all of this guilt still there, and I wish I could just enjoy it without all the guilt. One of the songs on this record is that I would like to do the drugs, drinking, and not feel the guilt for it. Feeling the hangover sure, but not the guilt. It’s like the celebration, then the dark side of it. It’s like anyone wanting to ask “Who am I in this?” am I going to wake up one morning and think “I am a loser”, or still need to prove to them that I am a good and respectable person.


JH: I get that, I mean, I have a great life, but you have the freedom to do the things you love. You do interesting things, no one is interested in what I do at my day job, the stuff I do that is interesting is talking to people like you.

T: Yeah but, I look at you and say, you built something with your life, you have this to say for yourself. I am just out having all the fun, but have not accomplished anything. But my friends and everyone tells me I have built something, its significant, but I have a hard time seeing it. But its all this clash of what is going on anyway, sometimes none of it makes much sense. For instance, I am still dating men, and that’s fine, but I also recently realized that I am deeply in love with a woman. I am trying to make that work. But I feel like I’m betraying men when I date a woman, and I also feel like I’m not living to my full life when I only date men. With a woman, it feels like a noise that I can’t shut off, not that it’s saying “this is not right”, but I feel incomplete, and it is not the full picture of who I am, and I need to go back to men. I am happy in this situation, then I’m not being true to who I am, so I have to go have sex with men. It’s like an itch, that you really can’t get over. Not that sex with men is a bad habit, it’s just a hard thing to think through.

JH: This is my last question. What would you say to the young kid who is afraid in the closet, and in that vulnerable state?

T: The most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life is being a queer person, there is so much color to it, so much love. You become so much deeper as a person with those people because we are all kind of freaks. You can hold them closer to yourself, cling to them because of the love and acceptance we are all sharing with each other. Being a part of this community has made my life rich in a way that I wish that I could give to straight people because it brings me often to the point of tears to be part of this community. If you are afraid, obviously do what you need to for your safety, but just know that on the other side of that bridge there is a whole beautiful world full of wonderful people, coloring with every crayon in the box.


JH: Well, that can cover it, what a message, thanks.

A Follow-up conversation I had with him about the Black Lives Matter protests happening (began the day after the first segment I did with him), here is his statement.

T:  I lived in Minneapolis for a while; the police there are on another level of shitty. So when I saw the video, I hoped people would get mad, I hoped laws would pass, I hoped the officers would be sent to prison. But I didn’t think any of that would actually happen. 

So I gotta say, I’m excited. Fuck those guys, and the entire department, and every DA in America that doesn’t charge police for murder and misconduct. I’m excited for the first time since Obama’s election. I’m excited that Black Lives Matter, which is fronted by queer black people, is leading the charge. Seeing the overhead shots of Hollywood yesterday made my heart swell up. 
Justice for George Floyd, Justice for All

Twitter: @tolliv3r
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