Recovery and Redemption: The rise and rise of Trash Boat

The story of Trash Boat vocalist Tobi Duncan is one you couldn't make up – or wouldn't want to, anyway. With his band preparing to release their career-defining third album, Don't You Feel Amazing?, he charts the personal agony that has inspired him to seize his breakout moment with everything he has...

Recovery and Redemption: The rise and rise of Trash Boat
Ian Winwood
Gobinder Jhitta

As a young teenager, Tobi Duncan didn’t dream of a life in music. A sporty kid from a white-collar family, at school in England’s Home Counties he imagined himself becoming a professional athlete. Those well-coordinated limbs of his might take him far, he thought. He was good at tennis. He excelled at kickboxing and jujitsu. Less inclined toward team sports, all the same he didn’t mind getting stuck into a bit of rugby union.

As a scrum half for the Chesham Stags, age 15 Tobi was caught in a pincer movement in which he was tackled while trying to change direction. In an explosion of agony, his hyper-extended knee was crushed backwards. The leg was badly swollen. A scan revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament that would require surgery and physiotherapy. At first he was told that this wasn’t that big a deal; the injury was serious, sure, but it was the kind of setback from which sports people recover. But not this time. Tobi didn’t yet know it, but his dreams of becoming a professional athlete were over. In their place stood a state of permanent pain.

We’ll get to that.

Seated over a pint of Guinness in a window seat of the Spread Eagle pub in London’s Camden Town, the singer is asked to survey his startling change of circumstances. Were it not for a life-changing collision on the playing fields of South Buckinghamshire, he would never have become a member of Trash Boat. One of the fastest emerging groups in the country, he wouldn’t be here today as their representative. He wouldn’t be on the cover of Kerrang!.

“Where I am right now, I’m happy with my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t change it. If I did, things could have been better for me. But they also could have been worse. Why roll the dice when I’m happy now?”

Amid the whispering rain of this most reluctant of springs, Tobi Duncan talks about Trash Boat’s forthcoming album, Don’t You Feel Amazing?, their third, released this August. The sound of a band coming into its own, the singer admits that in the past the quintet tried too hard to conform to the kind of hardcore that would be appreciated by “two or three hundred” people in armpit clubs up and across the country. That was all they wanted; they didn’t mind that “the rest of the world wouldn’t give a shit”. The extent of their ambitions was landing a support slot on a shouty tour. Not just happy, they were determined to be little fish in a little pond.

Not anymore. Freed from the straitjacket of self-imposed compromise, the band – whose line-up is completed by the unbeatably named Oakley Moffatt on drums, James Grayson on bass, and Dann Bostock and Ryan Hyslop on guitar – cooked up the LP’s title-track in a single day. In the studio, producer Jason Perry played it again and again; he said he couldn’t remember the last time he’d worked on something this good. It’s not difficult to see why. With its swaggering beat and its urgent yet patient delivery, it is the kind of song that puts a band over the top.

“It seems to me that Don’t You Feel Amazing? is an objectively massive song,” Tobi says. “When I listen to it, I think that not only does the entire world have the potential to love this tune, but they’d be insane if they didn’t. Because I’ve listened to it a hundred times now, and every time I listen to it, it hits me like the first time I heard it… It’s the first time I’ve felt that our music has had mass appeal. We weren’t looking for money or fame; it was just us doing whatever came naturally and honestly, and from that this huge thing emerged.”

“I woke up and everything had changed. I could just tell. The surgeon was standing there, and I had no idea what was going on…”

Hear Tobi relive the moment his life changed forever – and set him on the path to stardom

Kerrang!’s meeting with Tobi Duncan has been purposefully divided into two parts. The interview itself will take place after lunch at a well-appointed burger joint a hundred yards up from the Electric Ballroom, where Trash Boat will headline on their upcoming October tour. That way, we have the chance to get to know each other a little bit. We can have a chat before the serious questions start. Strange, then, that in the time it takes for his plant-based meal to arrive, the singer spends every minute talking only about himself. Blimey, you think, this guy's a bit full of himself. It later transpires that Tobi believed that this was the interview itself. This had happened to him before, you see; a journalist had pitched up without a recording device and Tobi had been forced to trust him. If you want the truth of it, he felt a bit too inhibited to do otherwise. It’s at this point that you realise that the singer is in fact brand new to this world. Realising this, he becomes a wholly likeable character.

Taking the short stroll up the road to the Spread Eagle pub, the singer walks with a limp. Thirteen years after his accident on the rugby field, he still keeps a strip of the powerful (and powerfully addictive) painkiller OxyContin about his person. It’s been two years since he last swallowed one, but he has them just in case. Omnipresent, the pain is like tinnitus. There’s never a day “when it falls below five” out of 10. Listing to the right, he can really only walk for about 30 minutes at a time. At the pub, he cranes his neck like a swan. Everything is out of kilter.

“I have no joint space between my tibia and fibula, so I’m kind of lop-sided,” he says. “It affects my hip, my spine, my neck; my weight unconsciously goes onto my right side. It’s very doom and gloom. There’s not a lot of good points.”

He thinks about what he’s saying and laughs. “It’d be great press if I lost my leg, though,” he adds.

Probably, Tobi will lose his leg. Recovering from the initial surgery and months of physiotherapy, whenever Tobi tried to train in martial arts and kickboxing, his knee swelled up like a hot water bottle. Two keyhole surgeries provided no clues that anything was wrong. A second invasive procedure was equally fruitless. Regarded by his surgeon – “A world class c*nt,” apparently – as an ungrateful patient, as a soppy teenager, actually, for more than two years he was given the brush. By now, his leg was dead meat; it could only really be moved with the help of his hands. After almost three years of diminishment and pain, in search of an answer Tobi went private. Emerging from the fog of a general anaesthetic at the Chiltern Hospital, a third full-scale operation revealed the full extent of the problem.

“That’s the surgery where I woke up and everything had changed,” he says. “I could just tell. I woke up and my parents were there in tears. The surgeon was standing there all sullen with his clipboard. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was bad. I knew he wasn’t going to say that he’d fixed some little problem… He showed me these pictures of him pulling the articular surface off my bone. He had a tiny little microscopic camera when he was doing the surgery and you could just see the surface of my fibula and tibia [bones] and my cartilage. It was just ragged, rotten flesh that he was pulling off in clumps. That’s why I was swelling. There were these little ragged pieces would just break off and swell and catch. That was it. He was, like, ‘I had to pull it all off. There was no sense in leaving it because it was all coming off anyway.’ He told me that I no longer had any cartilage, cushion or surface on the bone. Effectively, what that means is that I’ve got open nerve endings [rubbing] bone on bone.”

Well that would explain the pain, then. Over lunch, Tobi shows Kerrang! a picture of his legs taken a decade earlier. The right is a well-sculpted specimen of muscular definition; the left looks like a boa constrictor that’s swallowed a water buffalo. Do you mind, we’re trying to eat here? The prognosis is that he’ll need at least one knee replacement. The procedure is not without complications, though, because sometimes it make things worse. A number of surgeons have told him that he could “bypass a lot of hassle by just proactively removing [his] leg above the knee”. This remains the most likely outcome.

But. “If there’s a residual infection inside my joint and they replace the joint and that infection then thrives on the new surface and spreads, I could lose more [of the leg],” he says. “I could die. If it was a staph [staphylococcus aureus] infection and they removed the knee and it was still there and it went unchecked, it could spread to my hips. I’d be paralysed, or die.”

In the pursuit of palliation, his NHS surgeon threw painkillers his way. Grieving for a vanished future, he was by now swallowing the opioid OxyContin, Tramadol, Valium, a selection of anti-inflammatories, and as much weed as he could suck into his lungs. Working in customer services, he would dose himself up before the start of a shift, and then once again after work. Hanging out with friends, not doing very much of anything at all, the days and months began to slip by. He became addicted to pornography.

“That was a whole other thing,” he says. “I lost my virginity quite late – I was 17 or 18 – but at the time I was just experimenting with sex. I had so many opioids in my veins that I just couldn’t do it. My brain didn’t understand why my body wouldn’t respond; I started to think, ‘Oh, I can’t do sex. I’m not very good at sex.’ I didn’t realise at the time that it was because I was smashing all these painkillers. Instead, I got savagely into a porn addiction. That actually stuck around for longer than the pills… That just lingered. It was debilitating. It crept on slow but it got heavy real quick. Everything did.”

“I got a certain point where I felt like I’d pissed my twenties away, living in this personal hedonistic world. It’s fucking cheating, it’s not real”

Listen to Tobi discuss the impact of addiction, and his decision to turn his life around

By age 23, Tobi Duncan realised that he was doping away his twenties. The most fascinating of case studies, his story might well be the first known account of someone dealing with addiction before they joined a band. He wasn’t much bothered that there were many mitigating circumstances. He was hooked on legal medication prescribed by a licensed physician. The pills were needed to alleviate chronic pain. He wasn’t hanging around in car parks waiting to score illegal drugs from illicit dealers. He hadn’t got himself hooked for nothing. Even so, realising that he’d allowed his life to plateau to a path of little resistance, Tobi took immediate action. In an astonishing intervention, he quit the pills cold turkey.

“It’s still rough,” he says. “You never shake addiction. You’re always remembering what it was like. Not to sell it, but it’s fake fun… it’s the best feeling. It’s a big warm hug all over your body that just makes you happy and makes you a nicer person. It makes you friendlier and to a remarkably high degree it makes you happier with your surroundings. I’d be facing an 11-hour night shift speaking to customers about their missing orders but I’d be in really great mood about it because I was dosed up. You always remember what it was like. It was right there. I could reach in and have a great time. You constantly think about it. It never leaves your brain.”

Thank God for music, then. Tobi first felt the pull of its wondrous properties watching School Of Rock at the cinema when he was 10. An older brother 15 years his senior used to pick him up from school in his car; driving home, they’d listen to Muse, Pantera, Queens Of The Stone Age, The Prodigy and System Of A Down. Heading into London, he’d drag his knackered leg down the rickety steps of the Underworld – “my favourite venue,” he says – here in Camden Town. On its stage he saw (among others) Title Fight and Story Of The Year, two of the wildest shows of his life. Listening to the overwhelming unity of the audiences, he thought, ‘I might not be able to kick box anymore, but I’ll have a bit of this.’

“Seeing the way the crowd kicked off, I knew that’s what I wanted,” he says. “And I knew that I wanted to be onstage. I knew that I wanted to incite that kind of energy. I knew that I wanted to be in control of a roomful of people knowing that there’s a part in a song coming up that will make them go crazy.”

In more ways than one, it was a remarkable renaissance. No longer a drug addict, no longer prey to related feelings of sexual inadequacy, at home in the suburbs Tobi told his mum and his dad that he was – he doesn’t quite know the word – pansexual, perhaps? He’s attracted to women and men, and to other stripes of gender and sex. No big deal was made of this, he says. “It was very much a ‘by the way’” kind of conversation. His parents weren’t phased. He has a gay brother, anyway, and a gay cousin; his uncle, Alan Duncan, was the first openly gay Conservative MP. Asked if he is himself a Tory, the singer nays like an irritated thoroughbred. He’ll have you know that he’s a member of the Labour Party.

“I knew wanted to be onstage. I knew that I wanted to incite that kind of energy. I knew I wanted to be in control of a roomful of people”

Listen to Tobi discuss how his own experiences as a fan shaped his desire to make music his life

As an LBGTQ+ singer in a pronouncedly heterosexual scene, Tobi tells Kerrang!, “I’ll be honest, I’ve never experienced any homophobia.” With a Roman nose that’s already been broken four times, perhaps it helps that it looks as if he can handle himself. In his 28 years, he’s yet to hear “anything close to a coherent argument about how any deviation from the status quo of ‘normal’ sexuality is a bad thing”. If a staphylococcus aureus infection or a homophobe on the circuit wants to give it a try, here’s some advice: think again. “Do you want to say something? Because if you want to say something, I’m ready.”

Maybe he was born ready. In a glass-half-empty world, the story of Tobi Duncan is one of tragedy. He was robbed of the future he imagined for himself, and in time will surely lose a limb. With the assistance of the state, he became an addict; he got hooked on bongo on the computer. Through what is surely no fault of his own, he allowed important years of his life to slip silently by.

But, really, his is a story of reclamation. As if by accident, he found a different vocation being the kind of person who might just become a star. He put a stop to all of the things that were hurting him. Have you any idea how difficult it is to kick OxyContin cold turkey? Have you any notion of just how few people are able to do that? Remember, he even has a packet of temptation right there in his pocket, in case the pain gets too much. But so far it hasn’t. The pain persists, but the habit has died.

“I feel like I’ve built up a pretty good tolerance for my functionality,” he says. “I think I’ve been able to sculpt a world around it as a disability. I’m making it work. At the moment, it’s not crippling my mental health. It’s not stopping me from doing what I want to do.”

In the Spread Eagle, it’s taken Tobi an hour to peck his way through two thirds of a pint of Guinness. Outside, the rain beats out a halfhearted tap-dance on the pavement. Just past the bottom of the street, the marquee of the Underworld reads ‘We’re open, support us’. It’s good advice. As the country steps hesitantly towards the light, its bands will play once more. This autumn, on their biggest headline run to date, Trash Boat will get the chance to find out in person whether the entire world is ready to take a tumble for Don’t You Feel Amazing?.

As we prepare to leave our table, another question comes to mind. What is it Tobi Duncan wants from all this?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t expect anything.”

“I didn’t ask what you expect. I asked what you want.”

To give him his due, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“What do I want?” he asks. “I want to be the biggest band in the world. I want to be bigger than Billie Eilish. I want to be bigger than Queen. I want to be bigger than Rage Against The Machine. Whether this happens or not, who knows, but my competitive nature has made me want the best out of everything I do. If I don’t get it I’m not going to be bummed out because whatever I get is a win. I feel like I’m winning right now, and the more I can win, the better.”

Don't You Feel Amazing? is released on August 13 via Hopeless Records – pre-order your copy now. Trash Boat will tour the UK this October.

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