Music in the farmland
They may come from different generations that some would think are galaxies apart but Joel Tock, 28, and Steve Laxton, 62, have been on artistic trajectories that were bound to collide.
That the impact happened among the hills, valleys and farm fields of Wisconsin is even more remarkable.
Tock and Laxton, both accomplished musicians, singers and songwriters, have created an outlet in rural Monroe County where they are collaborating on serious music and trying to reach a fan base that could potentially stretch nationwide.
That may seem an elusive goal considering rural Wisconsin isn’t exactly among the Meccas associated with the music industry like Nashville or L.A.
As it happens, that’s not as important as it was before the advent of streaming platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes. In fact, Tock and Laxton have encountered some do-it-yourself success with the release of two song videos produced in their own studio.
Under the band name “Tock”, their songs “Smile 4 Me”, which debuted July 26, and “Skippin’ Stones” released Aug. 30, have been getting thousands of hits on streaming platforms.
According to Laxton, it’s a far cry from when he first wadded into the “analog” music industry in the 1980s and 90s. Back then, the record companies were the gatekeepers that decided who succeeded and who didn’t. “Twenty years ago, you’d try to get a record label to listen to your songs,” he said. “Now it’s more of a campaign to the people.”
Laxton began honing his chops in the Chicago musical scene in the early 80s, working as a bartender at Cubby Bear’s where he ended up booking bands for the bar.
He parlayed that into acquiring bookings for his own group that played around Chicago and the Midwest.
Their original scores in the Power Pop Rock genre, which included bands like Cheap Trick, Bad Finger, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, were good enough to be noticed by some heavy hitters in the recording industry.
Laxton, who had previously spent two years in Nashville focusing on his songwriting, caught the attention of Bruce Lundvall at Capitol Records, New York City. He was represented by Irwin Steinberg, also of NYC, who was the former head of Mercury Records. Laxton recorded a number of songs and did two showcases for the label.
Although the signing ultimately fell through Laxton resumed his presence in Chicago music scene, where he also had built a reputation on the Blues circuit. He eventually focused on his legal career and returned to his roots in Sparta in 2007, continuing to practice law and playing in local cover bands ever since.
Tock’s foray into the music industry came in the digital era. His career path was likely set while he was still in his mother’s womb.
His parents were active in the Coulee Region’s music scene for decades with the band Midwest Coast.
His mother, Dana, who also owns Dana’s Music in downtown Sparta, is a guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist, while his father, Russ, is a drummer.
Tock is not only himself an accomplished drummer, guitarist and vocalist, he has been producing his own videos and CDs for years.
His music has led him on tours across the U.S. and even into Belarus and Russia, where he spent some tense months after being smuggled into the country without a visa to play in a Russian metal band that needed an American vocalist.
In 2011, Tock produced the music and drummed for the Vans Warped Tour with Stephen Jerzak, which involved driving eight hours every night to different festivals in 40 states for two-and-a-half grueling straight months.
At the time, Jerzak was number one on the Unsigned Myspace Charts, getting more plays than Lady Gaga. That was preceded by Joel’s own tour in 2010.
Tock then drummed for the band Whiskey Lane, an erstwhile local band that actually garnered some big-time attention when country star Luke Bryan showed interest in one of Whiskey Lane’s songs. However, the band, sticking to its artistic integrity, didn’t think he was worthy and declined.
Tock still occasionally plays area venues – at least before the COVID pandemic -- with the 90s cover band Shock Pocket, which includes Mom on keyboards, guitar and vocals, and Dad on drums.
So, both Laxton and Tock bring different perspectives to their music, but they are still somehow synchronized. The two first met when Laxton was playing in a band with Joel’s dad.
“Steve and I had good chemistry from the get-go,” recalls Tock. “He’s got some crazy energy and is a super entertaining dude who’s talented on everything he picks up.”
According to Laxton, that feeling is mutual. "When I first met Joel I was just knocked-out by his talent. He is a great singer and great at so many instruments. A really great guitar player and drummer and I'm normally critical of both.
He said it was Tock’s songwriting ability where they really clicked and as they began to work in the studio, Laxton got a glimpse at the full range of his partner’s talent.
“I learned that Joel's ability extended to an almost chameleon-like ability to adapt to even obscure instruments and play them well as if he had for years,” said Laxton. “ Joel produced a song of mine and I really liked his approach to engineering and producing, something he is very skilled at. It just seemed natural at a certain point that we would start writing and recording together."
The two started recording at Joel’s studio in the basement of Dana’s Music before building a studio in an idyllic pastoral setting on land Laxton owns outside of Wilton. They call it Smash Ranch Studio and it is meant to be an attraction for other artist but with COVID, that’s been put on hold.
“It’s not just a studio, it’s a whole entire vibe where you can get away and create,” said Tock, who is the technology guy of the two. He’s spent years playing with computer programs and has become proficient at both sound and video. Gone are the days of the big consoles. All the mixing is done on computers.
But even technology can’t save poorly written music and both Tock and Laxton are well aware it’s not only talent but attention to detail in both the lyrics and the instrumentals that separates their music from the cacophony of mediocrity that makes it’s way onto streaming platforms.
“We’re both dedicated to doing music that’s both substantive and qualitative,” said Laxton. “The challenge is trying to have your material stand out.”
Judging from the success of their first two releases, they are on the right track. “Smile 4 Me” hit a views threshold on Spotify, placing it on its Discover Weekly forum which sends the song randomly to users. It’s not the red carpet to the AMAs but it’s progress.
They’ve taken the lessons learned from those experiences and incorporated them into their new video, “Sinkin’ My Ship”, which is scheduled for release Dec. 6.
According to Tock, it’s a little darker and more mysterious than their first two releases and it should help send them to the next level.
“We’re hoping it will give us a little more tension on the slingshot,” said Tock.
To find music by Tock and to see what’s happening in their world visit their website at tock.tv or go to their Facebook page at TOCKband.