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Dadnabbit Interview: Morgan Taylor, a.k.a. Gustafer Yellowgold

There’s never any shortage of cartoon characters in family entertainment, but few of them possess the unusual, undeniable appeal of Gustafer Yellowgold, the friendly, bug-eyed alien from the sun who arrived on Earth five years ago and has quickly achieved kindie rock star status. With his latest adventure, Gustafer Yellowgold’s Infinity Sock, coming out on March 1, we decided now would be the perfect time for a chat with his creator: musician and illustrator Morgan Taylor.

So let’s talk about Infinity Sock.

Yeah! What’s going on with it? (Laughs)

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about the Gustafer records is that they’re not only mellow — as you often point out — but that they’re also gentle, which makes a big difference, I think. And I also appreciate the fact that they don’t pander musically, either to kids or to parents.

I don’t — yeah, I don’t think that does any good, to pander. It’s not in my nature — I’m not even thinking about whether I’m doing it or not. Maybe I sensed that kind of thing in music as a kid, so I try and avoid it now.

I know you’ve said that you spent a lot of time listening to AM radio when you were a kid, and that influence is pretty apparent in your work. But do you remember listening to any music geared specifically to kids?

Yeah, I actually did, and the older my son gets, the more my memories of it resurface. I had a lot of the old book-and-record combos from Disney, like Br’er Rabbit and Snow White, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. And the music from Sesame Street and The Electric Company, of course. There was a lot of great music on those shows.

A few of the early Sesame Street albums were reissued recently. My kids love them — and like you, I have a lot of strong memories of those songs. I was surprised by how many lyrics I remembered, and it’s been a learning experience, because to my memory, the ’70s and ’80s were kind of a wasteland for kids’ music, but so many of those Sesame Street songs were just brilliant.

I guess a lot of the really good stuff was from the late ’60s and early ’70s. And of course, a lot of the songs I remember are themes to TV shows, like The Rockford Files. I hear those songs now and I feel like it’s time for me to go to bed. (Laughs)

The common thread between your music and the stuff we’re talking about is that, in contrast to a lot of what’s released now, it isn’t saturated with sensory input — it doesn’t get up in your face. It gives you room to experience it.

I think a lot of the stuff you’re talking about is probably a bit focus-grouped. Everyone’s afraid of losing kids’ attention, so they approach it from the mindset of, “Okay, we have to keep things moving at a fast pace — today’s kids, you know, ADD!” But I think the opposite is true.

My approach largely developed accidentally on purpose, if that makes any sense. I started putting these projects together and seeing people’s reactions to them, and pretty much unanimously, people say they love that they’re mellow. I hear “My kid who’s normally hyper sits calmly through Gustafer DVDs.” I’m not a child psychologist, but it seems like maybe that’s what kids need. They don’t need the fast-paced stuff — not that it’s bad, necessarily, but people frequently assume that it’s necessary.

What’s the inspiration for your lyrical approach? Sometimes it seems like you’re the Mike Doughty of kids’ music — that words or titles are used simply because they sound good together. A song like “Wisconsin Poncho” from Infinity Sock, for instance.

Sometimes, yes. And actually, it’s funny that you chose “Wisconsin Poncho” as an example, because that’s something I came up with in 1988, when I was a teenager. I had a friend I used to do funny songs with, and we did a song about a porcupine that had a spoken-word part, talking about woodland creatures. We were definitely absurdists. One line from that part talked about a Wisconsin poncho, and it’s just stuck in my head for 20 years. Anyway, since Gustafer is in Minnesota, and his Infinity Sock adventure takes him out of the state, that phrase just sort of naturally reappeared.

But of course, a title is very valuable. I do this a lot — when I’m going to make an album, I choose the song titles first. I put together 10 titles, and think, “these all sound good to me,” and the stories flow from that. Like, for instance, “Panther Stamp Pants.” That’s just fun to say, so I’m like, “What’s it going to be about? Well, the pterodactyl is really into clothing…”

So with Infinity Sock, did you approach the songs with a narrative arc already established?

Yeah, actually, I’ve had the story around since 2006 or so. It was a standalone story, and I kind of tinkered with it for a long time, and then my wife Rachel and I — we started this business around people’s fondness for our DVDs, and then we thought we could turn this into a book. That’s how Infinity Sock was originally supposed to be released. But we realized that the publishing world is a whole other monster, so we decided to do it this way, just to get the story out.

So I wrote the songs by choosing points in the story, and I built the music around where they’d go. The cool thing about the sock is that it serves a different purpose for all these different groups of characters, so the storytelling possibilities were limitless, and I could just mold the music around it. Like with “Beehive” — I mean, what’s a sock doing in a beehive? Well, the bees are musicians, and they use it as a curtain for their shows. Things fit together that way.

About how long does it take you to put these together? You aren’t just performing the music, but you’re creating the illustrations that go along with it.

I’d say two or three weeks per song. And that’s just putting the illustrations to paper.

And do you illustrate as you go along with the music, or are they separate processes?

I record the songs first, and make sure I’m happy with the music, and confident that each song is strong enough to go on the DVD, and then I start drawing. What I do is sit down with a lyric sheet, and it’ll have maybe 20 lines of lyrics, and I’ll storyboard it out in a notebook with pencil — just sketch it out roughly. Once I have that, I’ll get out the good paper, draw it for real, and scan it into Photoshop — after which Rachel adds the template with the lyrics and the plaque and all that stuff. Once all that’s ready, we send it off to the animator, who sends us previews, and usually after two or three rounds of edits, it’s finished. The whole process takes almost a year.

I know that for most performers, by the time an album is done, they’re often pretty tired of the music and ready to move on to the next project. I imagine that because you’re moving through each Gustafer release twice, essentially, it must make you a little antsy sometimes.

Well, let me tell you — the music for Infinity Sock was finished in December of 2009, so…yeah. I’ve already started drawing the next DVD, and I have the next 10 songs recorded, and the two following DVDs planned out on my board.

Yeah, it takes awhile to do these, and for me, I need to be constantly going. Otherwise, I do get antsy.

I spoke with Michael Rachap of Readeez recently, and he talked about having constructed an elaborate mythology around those characters, and his plans to slowly explore their world over the course of many releases. It seems like you’re on a similar path with Gustafer.

It’s true, and my main obstacle is just time. I have more ideas than I can manage, and I want to get them all out. The next DVD is written, the next two are conceived — it’s like, I already know the owl has its own song. It isn’t for two more projects, but I want to do it now! (Laughs) I like the owl. I want the owl to have his time to shine. You know, there’s Gustafer, you have Slim, and then there’s the pterodactyl — those are the three most solid, prominent characters. But I want there to be more. The owl has a whole story — the owl is married to a bear, but the relationship is strained because of their cultural differences. (Laughs)

To what do you attribute the surreal streak in your lyrics?

Um…issues of MAD magazine from the ’70s…Sid and Marty Krofft…do you remember those shows?

Of course! H.R. Pufnstuf!

Right, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, yeah. Definitely those MAD issues with Don Martin and Al Jaffee and Mort Drucker. But on the other side, there’s a little bit of a sentimental streak in my music that I think probably comes from Bil Keane, who does The Family Circus, and Charles Schulz. I don’t know — I’ve never thought about it like this before, but I think that stuff is definitely there.

All of which probably contributes to the unusual amount of crossover success you’ve had, especially as a live act — you’ve opened for some unexpected acts.

I think the thing is, this is just my music. This is the music I’ve always been making. It’s just that nobody really noticed until I added cartoon characters. The grand irony in all this is that I put out a record in 2003 called Dream in Green, and it had songs like “I’m from the Sun” and “Quite Easily Lost.” I paid publicists to push it, and did all kinds of things to try and get people to hear it, and I got like one review, from the Village Voice, and it was a bad review. They said it was generic or boring or whatever, and at that point, I thought maybe I should reevaluate.

It was Rachel who suggested going back and doing the children’s book I’d talked about. She saw the potential in all this. So I had these songs and put cartoons to them, and it evolved into DVDs, and the next thing I know, I’m opening for Wilco. I’m sitting there in the dressing room, waiting to go onstage, by myself, with just my drawings and my music, and I’m thinking to myself, “This is so weird.” And then the same thing happened with the Polyphonic Spree. All of a sudden, people were into my music, and I think it’s because I added cartoons.

It just puts the music in a different framework, a different context. The lyrics are in front of you, which changes the experience, so…maybe I just kind of happened into something that’s natural for me. Which is great, because I can keep doing it. I mean, Gustafer looked like a kids’ character, so I thought, “Well, I guess maybe this is kids’ music.” But it’s really just my music.

Occasionally, I’ll get people coming up to me at shows and saying, (stage whisper) “I think I like this more than my kids!” I think it appeals to people like me — kids who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, who saw a lot of bands in bars, and kind of cut their teeth on real alternative music. Maybe I’m talking to those people with the music part, but there’s also a strong element of nostalgia in the kids’ part. You know? They’re catchy pop songs with nostalgic-looking cartoons.

Visit Gustafer (and Morgan) at his official site — and just in case you were wondering, yes, Infinity Sock is available for pre-order now.

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