Tony Choy’s pioneering fusion of world music and extreme metal has made him a legend. We ask him how he did it
Jun 28, 2019
Synkronizity, Tony Choy’s new band, has its name for a reason: the Florida quintet combine a breathtaking range of influences into music that you genuinely haven’t heard before. The basic template is progressive rock and metal, but there are so many jazz, Latin and funk elements bubbling under the surface of the tunes that it’s impossible to slap any single genre tag onto the band.
Then again, this refusal to adhere to perceived genre boundaries is nothing new for Choy, who first established a reputation in the 1990s in the metal band Atheist. Their 1993 album Elements is the best place to go for a taster of his powerful, Latin-infused fingerstyle lines, although Choy had first left his mark on the Florida metal scene with the equally adventurous Cynic.
“I’m Cuban-born and I moved to the USA when I was about seven,” he tells us. “My dad was a political prisoner from Cuba: he was against Communism, and basically if you ever spoke against the revolution there you would be put in jail. My dad was a musician, and he had three albums out on RCA in the midst of all this. He travelled to Germany and Japan, representing Cuba, and I remember him bringing home spearmint gum, which was a huge deal. Those were very happy days, until he was jailed by the government.”
He continues: “I started playing bass around the age of 15. It was weird: when I picked up the bass, I almost knew how to play it already. It came very naturally to me. My very first bass was a Hondo tobacco sunburst Jazz copy with P and J pickups. It had this big silver pickguard, which I took off because I couldn’t understand how you could play it with that thing on there. I didn’t sleep and eat – I would just practise for seven hours a day. My mom used to yell at me in Spanish, ‘You better come and eat right now!’ I’d be like, ‘Mom, I’m practising!’”
Asked if his background informed his bass playing, Choy nods: “As far back as I can remember, I was listening to salsa and the classic Cuban forms of music. There’s a lot of different forms of salsa, of course – Columbian salsa, Puerto Rican salsa, Cuban salsa – and the bass players had a huge influence on me. Salsa is a very rhythmic music, and the bass is the backbone. You’ve got your horns playing the melody, and the piano being melodic and percussive at the same time, but the bass is the core of the syncopation of the music. Everything else follows behind it.”
Not that this early influence prevented Choy from getting into other forms of music: once his older brother introduced him to heavy metal at an early age, he soon moved in that direction with his own playing. As he recalls, “I’ve always been into music for itself, not because it’s a specific genre. I started with Sabbath, Purple, Zeppelin and Maiden and the classic metal bands, and after a while I wanted the heaviest music out there, so I got into thrash metal. I know for sure that I was one of the first Metallica fans in Florida. Paul and Sean [Masvidal and Reinert, Cynic guitarist and drummer] were friends of mine from school and they asked me if I’d like to jam with their band, and the rest is history. The band I was in at the time got mad at me, because I was their singer as well as their bass player, but I had to go…”
With Cynic and Atheist, Choy played an integral role in music that recognized few limitations. All these years later, he chuckles. “I don’t know what the hell we were thinking! We used to listen to Chick Corea and Frank Zappa and then play death metal. The transition between those styles of music used to freak people out. But we were just into everything: we listened to anything that was fast and left-field, and we were always trying to be different. We didn’t want to be normal: we wanted to be crazy and different, and people were like ‘What is this? What are you doing?’ We were shoving 15 riffs into one song. I wouldn’t change a thing: it made me the player I am today.”
Always a fan of high-end bass guitars, Choy played a Zon for many years. He explains, “I had a six-string Tobias, and I liked Ken Smith basses too, but I always wanted a Zon. They were too expensive, though, and I never thought I could afford one. But when I got signed to BMG in a Latin pop band, my share of the advance cheque was $10,000, so I said ‘I’m gonna go get my Zon now!’ I got me an amber Zon and I played it forever. Later, Joe Zon gave me an artist endorsement and he was super helpful. I was always into plush, modified basses, which is why I played Zons for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fenders, but I’m a big Bartolini fan. You could get a hunk of wood and stick a Bartolini on there and it would sound good.”
He adds: “I did the graphite neck thing for a long time, and I truly love the feel of those things because they play like butter. They don’t warp, either: it’ll stay precisely in tune no matter what happens. I fell through a stage in Italy once – and the stage plank damaged the body of the bass, but didn’t do anything to the neck!”