May 4, 2007

Interview: Morgan Taylor, creator of Gustafer Yellowgold

(The fifth in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.)

Gustafer YellowgoldMorgan Taylor is a singer-songwriter who just released a DVD and CD set full of sing-along songs about a mellow yellow character named Gustafer Yellowgold. While the DVD is supposedly for kids, the songs have a definite grown-up appeal, a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of bands like Wilco and the Polyphonic Spree, both of whom have had Morgan perform Gustafer’s songs as their opening act.

Morgan answered a few questions about Gustafer’s growing appeal, but before we get to those let’s take a look at one of the songs from the DVD:

Who is Gustafer Yellowgold?

Gustafer Yellowgold is a friendly creature who immigrated from the Sun to Earth and now lives in a cottage in a woods-y area of Minnesota with a pet eel and dragon.

The Gustafer Yellowgold DVD seems to be targeted towards kids, and you regularly perform the songs in live kids shows. But you’ve also taken Gustafer Yellowgold on tour opening for bands like Wilco and the Polyphonic Spree, performing to an older crowd. Who do you consider your target audience, and what do you think explains Gustafer’s crossover appeal?

My target audience is anybody who gets into it. There are many levels of humor in it and the music wasn’t written with any specific demographic in mind. I’ve always had a more whimsical side to some of my writing, so it seems that’s why it fits in with kid’s stuff quite naturally, but it isn’t kid-music-whacky, so the adults go for it too.

What was your creative and technical process for putting this together? Did you start with the songs? The characters? The art? What medium do you use for illustration, and what software was used in putting it all together?

For the music on the current DVD, it all started with the music. I had accumulated over the course of probably five years of writing since moving to New York City, about a dozen or so songs that were unusually “cartoony” compared to my other songs. It was those songs that I started to illustrate out into a picture book. We ended up crossing paths with an animator who used Adobe After Effects and we started making what would become our first DVD. To draw I use pencil on bleed-proof marker paper, then ink it with Sharpies and fine-tip black ink pens. Then most of the coloring is Prismacolor colored pencil, with some larger areas done in Crayola crayon. Then I scan into Photoshop and set up layered files for the animator with eyelids for blinking and small elements for movement. Ultimately we’re going for the “moving book” type feel. It’s what gives the work it’s mellowness.

Some of the songs on the Gustafer DVD already appeared on your earlier albums. When you wrote them originally, were you writing with Gustafer in mind as a future project? Or did you realize retrospectively that you had several good songs that would fit in Gustafer’s world?

Yeah, I had recorded some of this material with my old band a while back without any real foresight into using them for anything else later. It wasn’t until I started drawing stuff that I went back and pillaged my back-catalogue.

What is your background? Do you have formal training in music and/or art?

More like I ended up studying it because I had a natural knack for art and music. Nothing I ever learned in any class compares to just doing it. I constantly wrote, recorded and performed over the years, trial and error with various projects and bands. (mostly error unfortunately) I used to obsessively draw all the time when I was younger, making comics and taking life-drawing classes outside of school too. I took a break from serious drawing for a few years, and I this has been kind of a re-launching of my cartooning. So I’m really glad I found an application for it finally.

The New York Times called Gustafer Yellowgold “a cross between Yellow Submarine and Dr. Seuss.” Others have compared your music to the Beatles, and there’s definitely a surreal element to your style. So who are your musical and artistic influences?

I grew up listening to 70’s pop radio. I was the youngest of three kids, so there was a record collection waiting for me already when I was born. A lot of soft-rock. I’m a huge Beatles fan and I’m obsessed with KISS. I went through an 80’s cheese-metal phase until I discovered R.E.M. in 1985. I loved Marvel comics and still do collect a little bit. There are some great creators working in the comics field today that are really inspiring.

Gustafer YellowgoldTake a look at this image. On the left, we see Gustafer engaged in one of his favorite hobbies, jumping on cake. On the right, we see a tile mosaic from a New York City subway station. Every time I see the mosaic, it reminds me of Gustafer. Coincidence?

Yes! That is an amazing coincidence! That kinda freaks me out a little actually.

What’s next for Gustafer? Is a sequel in the works? A series? Feature film? Toys? And what’s next for Morgan? Any non-Gustafer projects coming up?

The 2nd DVD/CD set is near completion, and hopefully will see a release later this year. And we just received our first shipment of our Gustafer Yellowgold plush-toys. I’m sitting here among all the crates right now. We may have to get rid of some of our furniture to make room. All this time, as I’ve said “we”, I’m talking about me and my wife Rachel Loshak. She’s my partner in this and if it weren’t for her, Gustafer would still be a stack of drawings on our kitchen table. She’s the reason we’ve made it this far already, so I’d be remiss to not tip my hat to her in all this too.

Thanks, Morgan!

Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World is available as a DVD/CD set exclusively through Barnes and Noble. To get more of a glimpse into Gustafer’s world, check out Gustafer’s website where you can tour his home, meet his friends, play some games, and see more of the videos from the DVD.