By Rob Mair

From Bon Jovi to Springsteen, Lifetime to the Gaslight Anthem, New Jersey’s musical heritage is inescapable; in fact, it’s a millstone many up-and-coming bands have to bear before ever creeping out of their basements and garages. It’s also a place where dreams of being in a band are tangible and real – and the opportunity to start a new one lurks around every corner.

As a young boy, Toy Cars’ Matt DeBenedetti was one such dreamer. Yet even though he was surrounded by music, the inspiration lay closer to home than most. His stepfather was a working bassist – “a hired gun,” says DeBenedetti – playing for the likes of Santana, Phish, and most recently Sandra Bernhard. “He definitely influenced my music from an early age, exposing me to lots of classic rock. I think he even bought me my first guitar…”

DeBenedetti trails off. “I mean, I grew up skateboarding, and that was a really huge part of my childhood too,” he continues. “I still love to skateboard, and it just went hand-in-hand with punk rock. I sort of identified with punk growing up. All the old bands; The Sex Pistols, The Clash, all the late 70s, early 80s Britpunk, that was a huge influence on who I was – and not just in wanting to play music. From there I ended up playing in all these different shitty punk bands when I was really young.”

Toy Cars (completed by guitarist Matt Caponegro, percussionist Mike Linardi and bassist Chris Beninato) are anything but a shitty punk band. In fact, they’re not really a punk band at all. Or an emo band. Or a blue-collar rock band. Genre tags are useful insomuch as they provide labels – yet here each feels ill-fitting and stretched to fit. Elements of all can be seen in the group’s excellent and expansive new album Paint Brain, but none feel truly comfortable. Even compared to 2016’s outstanding Sleeping Patterns EP, the stylistic growth is proof of a band finding its own sound  – and it makes them truly difficult to stick a pin in.

“We’re very much about having our own identity and not leeching from other things, whether that’s a band or a genre or a community,” considers DeBenedetti. “It’s something we try to work on all the time.

“You see a lot of bands that come up that say they are an emo band, and it’s great in the short term as you have this whole community to support you, but it limits you in the grand scheme of things if you call yourself an emo band or a hardcore band or whatever.”

In fact, DeBenedetti recalls some sage advice given to him by childhood friend and “musical mentor” Alex Levine, of the newly-reformed Gaslight Anthem: “At the time I was playing in some oi/ska/reggae band, and he’d come to see us. We had a few songs that were a little less of that genre and a bit more indie-rock, and he would always say that if you’re trying to do things that are bigger, then you should do it in that ‘rock’ direction, because if you label yourself as a rock band, it leaves things so much more open to you.

“Rock is so much more, you know? The sky’s the limit. You can stay as small or get as big as you want. That advice was really important to me. I’ve always been ambitious with my intentions of what we want to do as a band.”

Such clear intentions shine on Paint Brain – a clear step up from their previous output – which found itself rooted in a post-Gaslight, Clash-influenced sound. Here, the palette is broader, moving Toy Cars alongside the likes of North Carolina’s Sinai Vessel and Chicago’s Kali Masi – bands that also draw on a vast array of sounds, despite the debt owed to punk and emo.

“It’s funny that you mention them, because they’re both good friends of ours, and they’re bands that we totally identify with,” laughs DeBenedetti.

In truth, just as there’s a strong musical identity to Paint Brain, there’s a lot going on thematically, making it a thoughtful album with depths that stretch far beyond the hooky chorus of ‘Cold’ or the anthemic indie-rock of the title track. Sleep (or lack of) and dreams play a big role in the imagery – a response to his awkward sleeping patterns, says DeBenedetti. This theme was strong on the group’s previous EP, and is certainly carried over here.

“I go through phases of time where I can’t sleep at all. I’ll stay up and just mess around all night,” he says. “Then, at other times, I just want to sleep the whole day straight. I find that my brain works best when I’m a little sleep deprived. I think that comes through in the lyrics, you know? The weird dreams, the lack of sleep,” he laughs.

More importantly, it’s an album about taking responsibility, and not being complicit or complacent with your actions. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t written overnight but is the result of paragraph upon paragraph of notes stored in DeBenedetti’s phone (a change of tactic after losing one too many notebooks). Told as if it were someone speaking to themselves, it’s an honest album that doesn’t profess to have all the answers.

“I get my girlfriend asking me about the lyrics a lot of the time,” says DeBenedetti.  “She’ll be like, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ when we actually have a pretty normal, healthy relationship.

“But a lot of the themes on this record are about learning to rise above being complicit in your relationship with yourself or other people – in my case I mean with myself.

“We’re honest people, and the stuff you hear in the lyrics are straight from the heart. They’re honest things. I don’t really like to make stuff up in my lyrics, and if you read into them, they’re pretty cut and dry. If people connect with it, that’s really important to us.”

And this is the crux of what makes Toy Cars (and by extension Paint Brain) so great. “It’s easy for people to sniff out what’s not sincere,” DeBenedetti says as we wrap up our chat. It’s a line that comes loaded with subtext, about artistry and songwriting, intention and imagination. ‘Paint Brain’ is a clear labour of love. An investment of soul, pain and internal conflict set to three-minute rock songs.

It’s not exclusively a Jersey thing to combine sincere rock songs with punch and poise – but they do it better than most. Springsteen, Fallon – heck, even the great Jon Francis Bongiovi Jr has his moments; they all have a way of wearing their heart on their sleeve that swerves any notion of being ‘fake’. What they’re selling is authentic – and a fine example to follow for a band making its first tentative steps. There’s a way to go before DeBenedetti can be compared to these greats, but Paint Brain puts Toy Cars firmly on the right track.