Since the California Gold Rush, San Francisco has long since been the westward destination for countless innovators who came seeking their own interpretation of fortune. A city built on the dreams of some of history’s greatest adventurers, San Francisco is as much a destination for the world’s most determined and ambitious today as much as it was almost 200 years ago. In this respect, Philip Toscano is a modern day pioneer. Drawn to the city by love, and kept here by his passion, his story is not unlike so many others who have helped make the Bay Area all that it is today.
Music is as much a part of Phil as his love for the city he now pursues it in. An accomplished singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Phil along with his band, The Bribes, have built a following across several states. Gifted enough to collaborate with artists specializing in virtually any genre, Phil draws from a lifetime of experience to create his music.
In meeting Phil before he and The Bribes performed on March 17 at the Make Out Room, I got to the story of how he came to San Francisco hear first hand, and the sacrifices he made to keep what was most important to him, and how he has continued to create so much for so long.
How did you first get this band together?
The Bribes was a project Phillip started when he was in High School, with his friends and original bandmates, Kyle and Andy, while they were growing up on the south side of Chicago. When the three eventually went their separate ways from a musical standpoint, Phil got permission from the other two to continue to use the name The Bribes, and then decided to get serious about his music.
“We basically headlined every single midsized room in Logan Square, Avondale, Wicker Park, and we made a little bit of a name for ourselves.” Phil said about the success he had the second time he started The Bribes. The band was on the fast track to success having dominated the local scene, and even opening for several national touring acts such as Nick Waterhouse and Eli Paperboy Reed.
It looked as if like nothing could stop The Bribes at this point, but as often is the case, fate had other plans.
What made you decide to move from Chicago to San Francisco?
“For love, man, I came out here for love.”
Last Summer, Phil’s girlfriend of more than five years, Madeline, who was originally from San Francisco, came to the realization that her heart was still on the west coast and that she had to return home for more than a few reasons.
“Well what do I do?” Phil had to ask himself. “Do I continue on with this amazing trajectory that the band has continued on for the last year and a half, or do I leave for my love?” In the end, Phil chose love. Leaving his life and his band behind in Chicago, he moved to San Francisco and immediately understood why Madeline missed home so much. He is constantly amazed with the amount of success he has found in virtually every aspect of his life out here, the incredible personality of the city, and with how quickly he adopted San Francisco as his home.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t realize you need a change until you actually do it, and things just open up, things just unfold in front of you, and its beautiful.” Phil said confiding in me that this ultimatum was arguably one of the best things to ever happen to him.
Phil immediately found new members for his new project, and once again, got his old band members’ blessing to continue on using the name “The Bribes”. Clearly the third time is the charm, because immediately after moving to San Francisco Phil connected with bassist Jesse Strauss and drummer Dup Crosson, two incredibly accomplished musicians in the local scene. So far he is very satisfied with the amount of success he has been able to find in San Francisco, has been rapidly familiarizing himself with the local ambiance.
“I’m a Chicago boy from the South Side, I never understood that this (San Francisco) really is the promise land!” The term “Promise land” was not one he only used once to refer to San Francisco, using those words time and time again in both casual conversation and while on stage. It seems as though Phil cannot imagine himself living anywhere else in the world, adding “I can’t help but feel like I’m on vacation.”
How would you describe your music?
“It’s rooted in the kind of blues/rock kind of genre, but it has kind of some outreaching elements, it has pop elements, there’s gypsy jazz elements, there’s some baroque modal songwriting in there at times, there’s some Klezmer in there…. But it seems to me that it always comes back to Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll.”
What is your most popular song?
Garbage in / Garbage Out: It’s a crowd pleaser everywhere they go. They reserve it to play toward the end of every set, adding that it was a “High energy pop song”.
Which of your songs means the most to you?
Carmen: Carmen was originally written as three songs but eventually condensed into one. It was written about Phil’s Grandmother who was born in Mexico, moved to Oklahoma, and eventually came to Chicago with Phil’s Grandfather. Writing the song was his way of being with her even though he was not physically with her, and as he put it, he feels as if he is “Laying her down to sleep” every time he plays it.
Your song Morning Bells really spoke to me. Can you talk a little bit about what it means?
All of Dust tapes with the exception of Goodnight to the Crybaby was based on a series of dreams Phil had where he saw his own death. Tirelessly trying to find significance in the subliminal, he tried to tie as many streams of thoughts together as made sense in the context of this song.
Morning Bells is about one dream in particular where he sat in front of a friend’s house, and realizing he had “lost the ability to take breath and realized (he) was dying.” In the dream everyone around him was panicked and tried to help him, but strangely enough he felt happy, and as he put it, he “just left, and moved into another realm.” He tries to make his lyrics to the songs on this album a little bit ambiguous to make the message easier to relate to while still getting his point across, joking that “getting stabbed and dying” is “not something you can really sing or hum down the middle of the street.”
What is your life outside of music?
“It’s great!” He immediately said with a smile.
Phil spends most of his time either writing or practicing music, and creating what he hopes will become the next of The Bribes’ albums. To help support himself financially, Phil works with a few local music venues and loves every minute of it. “Everything’s coming up music!” He added, with genuine excitement to have found purpose on the path he has chosen in life.
Who are your biggest influences?
Phil did not waste any time, mentioning several classical influences and veterans of music.
Paul Robeson, Andre Segovia, John Lee Hooker, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, “Chuck Berry is a huge hero of mine” he then added, and eventually closed his show with “Maybelline”, a Chuck Berry cover. After the show, Phil went more into detail with me about how Chuck Berry influenced him, both musically and otherwise.
This was the first time up to this point in my life I had heard someone speak so personally about Chuck Berry, ominously enough this came about 12 hours before I would get a text informing me of his passing. I like to think that in a way, Phil’s choice of last song and speech to me on his influence was exactly how Phil would have best wanted to honor his hero if he had known that it would be his last night on Earth. Very rarely do things happen the way we plan them, silver linings like this make difficult times less painful.
How do you want your legacy to read?
“As somebody who extracted as much creativity out of himself as possible, and was abe to share it with as many people that were willing to appreciate it, and do it in the most ethically sound way.” He told me he strives to be “Super upfront, super honest. Who wants to make enemies anyways, but its one of those things where you just be good to people and people will be good back to you.” “Music is not different, when you share something, its going to come back to you ten fold.” “Keep your mouth fed, but always be thinking of others.”
What is next for Phil Toscano and The Bribes?
“We’re gearing up to do some more recordings in the studio in about the next few months, and then we’re going to release something in Fall of 2017.”
Ultimately, Phil is hoping that in November, he will be able to tour throughout Chicago and the Midwest, and play a few more shows with his old bandmates.
“I’m going to approach the peak of my game in the next few years… And I’m going to squeeze as much as I can out of it as possible.”
What is one question nobody ever asks you that you wish they would?
Question: How do you define yourself as an artist?
Answer: “I started originally as a visual artist, went to the school of the art institute from age 12-18… And I still consider myself a visual artist, I don’t necessarily think that I’m a musician in that sense, so when I think about music as a whole it’s always through the vein of ‘how is this composition going to look on a canvas? How is this going to be perceived?’… It’s difficult for me to perceive where visual art stops and where music begins because it’s kind of all bled through.” Phil added that he has done all of the visual art for every one of The Bribes’ albums up to this point, and always looks for new ways to blend music and visual art into one. Having done all the artwork for every one of The Bribes’ album covers, Phil has been able to exercise some of his visual creativity, but feels that much like his music, he is approaching the apex of his talent, but has not yet peaked.
This 45 minute set was not enough time to take in all that is The Bribes, and I have found myself listening to their music on my own time quite a bit. With a calm Blues flow, and clear Rock and Roll influence, The Bribes have a kind of music that will get you up in the morning, calm you down at night, and everything in between. The Bribes have shows coming up April 19th at the Elbo Room, and May 7th at Golden Gate Fields, if anyone should feel so compelled to see them live.
You in Mind
Rosemary the T.V. Star
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Goodnight to the Crybaby
Maybelline (Chuck Berry Cover)