INTERVIEW: Twink

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So. Daft question 1: Toy instruments. Why? An intellectual exercise in musical form, or one of those, 'Well, why not?' moments?

I got my first toy piano on a whim about 8 or 9 years ago. It was at a thrift store I wandered into and my pack-rat nature got the best of me. At the time I was doing synths and programming in goth and industrial groups, and brought the toy piano to a recording session to mix things up a little. It ended up fitting in really well, adding a surprisingly sinister vibe to the song we used it on. Ever since then I've been wanting to revisit it and see what other unexpected sounds I could conjure.

TwinkI didn't think about devoting myself to the toy piano until one day when my gear was giving me total hell. I was also kind of disenchanted with the whole gloom-and-doom scene, and didn't feel I was covering much new ground. Instead of pulling my hair out in frustration I started banging out funny little songs. After driving my wife crazy with twisted ice cream truck jingles all weekend, I knew I'd found my new muse. Toy pianos started following me home from junk shops and eBay. I genuinely love the sound they make, and each one has its own personality and quirks...weird tuning, bum notes, nice ringing chimes, etc.

So the instruments suggested the tunes? I got a distinct Raymond Scott vibe, and I'm not sure if that's down to the sounds or the deceptive simplicity of what's going on.

I've always loved odd music, from goofy cartoon soundtracks by Raymond Scott to super-extreme noise like Throbbing Gristle and Therios. I DJ'd in school and had access to an incredible record library. Everything from the Residents and Jad Fair, every little punk and experimental label, tons of ephemeral stuff like "Teach Your Bird to Whistle" tapes and high school band records. I'm an illustrator too, and visually I've been heavily influenced by comics, fast food toys and Hello Kitty junk. A friend once pointed out that the thread tying everything that I like together is "whimsical." I think he meant it as an insult, but I'm not ashamed of it.

While writing a repertoire for Twink, I started paying attention to things I related to "toy music." Music boxes, vintage kiddie records, hand-held video games, those annoying musical greeting cards. Simple, catchy, goofy melodies seemed appropriate. I'm a pretty miserable keyboard player anyway, so that was fine! Working within some predefined limitations actually helps me creatively, especially after projects where I'd spend days deciding between two dozen snare sounds for a 4-bar break. Eliminating that gear glut lets me concentrate more on the actual tune, and later I'll add other elements to beef it up. Listening to people like Raymond Scott or old 78rpm Big Band records is eye-opening (ear-opening?). They were able to get seemingly simple tunes across very strongly, but the arrangements were written to accommodate less-than-favorable mediums. They operated by the "less is more" school of thought to get powerful results. I've learned a lot by using hard-to-tame instruments to get spacious mixes...with such potentially ear-shattering sounds being tossed around, you run out of aural space real quick. If I return to making industrial music, I'll have a lot of fresh approaches for building walls of sound.

TwinkThe more I got into toy instruments, the more curious I became about what else was being done with them. I discovered a lot of people doing pretty different things. Pianosaurus is the one everyone's heard of. They've set the bar for the genre (if toy music is a genre), as far as something you would actually want to listen to. Simple, fun rock'n'roll. They'd smash their instruments at every show and only be out like fifty bucks. On the other end of the spectrum (but no less appealing) is the avant-garde pianist Margaret Leng Tan. Her album The Art of the Toy Piano is really inspiring, the wide range of emotions. Some of my other faves are the experimental composer Wendy Mae Chambers, the Australian techno-punk group Toydeath (using electronic kids' toys), and Oakland's all-female Toychestra. The band Self put out a disc touting the use of only toy instruments, but they produced it to sound like a regular band, admitting that the toys didn't sound robust enough. I just don't get the point of that, except to flaunt the gimmick. Not that I deny Twink of being gimmicky, but I'm satisfied with the sound pallete I'm using.

How on earth d'you mike up/record that sort of kit? Feel free to go into amazing detail.

TwinkThe first challenge with toy pianos, of course, is actually trying to play the dang things! Luckily I grew up on little Casio keyboards -- one of my first bands was an all-Casio Ministry cover act -- so I'm used to small keys. I can almost justify my obsessive toy piano collecting by saying each one behaves differently, due to key size, tuning, whatever. Certain songs are definitely written for specific pianos. For instance, my Jaymar has the best keys, but one's broken, so I can't play tunes requiring that note. Some pianos with a nice tone only have a C-scale, no black keys. My Kleinway, which looks like a knee-high grand piano, sounds like someone hitting a coffee can over your head with a spoon. It has its uses, but you're gonna get sick of hearing it pretty quickly.

I don't have much in the way of recording equipment -- mainly just a crappy mic, a mixing board, some FX, a digital 4-track, and SoundEdit on my Mac. The sound of a toy piano is actually two parts: the metal tines being struck and ringing, and the plastic and wooden mechanism squeaking and banging around. I've tried eliminating the mechanical noises in a professional studio with little luck, and found that my own humble set-up works much better. I've discovered a trick for recording toy pianos with minimal unwanted noise. Place the mic close to the tines to get a nice loud tone, which also drowns out some of the bangs and bumps. Crank the EQ almost all the way high or low while recording (it depends on the piano), and reverse that on playback. All that's left is the attack and the ring. You definitely alter the true tone of the instrument a bit, but I've never been a purist in recording anyway.

TwinkIf you listen to the Twink tracks that have minimal arrangement, you'll hear the clunks. Pretty soon into Twink, more and more of my old habits crept in (cheap synths, drum machines, weird loops and FX). Adding that stuff to a track sweetens the sound of the clanging pianos, and masks the audio grit.

"All-casio Ministry cover band"? You can't just leave that sort of thing hanging... In the Moog Cookbook style, or more 'this keyboard goes up to eleven...'?

It was one of those times when a couple friends and I were unemployed and looking for something to do. It wasn't meant to be all Casios though. We somehow got on a bill at the local campus, and our drum machine died the day of the gig. All I had on-hand to replace it was one of those dinky, 4-tone Casios. We ran it through some distortion and played the rest of the parts on other cheap keyboards. The crowd didn't seem to mind moshing to hyper Samba beats!

TwinkTwink recently featured on the BoingBoing website (http://boingboing.net), where there was mention of unfortunate happenings with the record-label. Has the BB publicity helped some?

Let me start by saying that everyone I've met who released stuff through a label, big or small, has told me a horror story. Any band I've personally known that's signed to a major has broken up because of the experience. I knew I'd need help releasing Twink, but wanted to avoid as many headaches as I could. Dyspepsidisc appealed to me for the variety of projects they were involved in, and the complete creative control they allowed their artists. Aaron and Matt (of Dyspepsidisc) have been great and easy to work with from the very beginning, and putting out the disc with them has been nothing but fun. Recently they realized they needed to concentrate a lot more on their design biz, Semisans, to get it off the ground and made the hard decision to cut their other projects. Right now I'm seeking a new distributor for the current Twink disc, and a label to release the next one. You can still get the disc through my site, but it's harder to get the word out without the dedicated help. Some websites like BoingBoing.net and K10K.net have helped spread the word, which I'm very grateful for. Twink isn't something I'll ever make a living from, but it would be nice to see my hard work end up in the hands of people that will enjoy it instead of disappearing into a void.

Has this release got 'it' out of your system, or can we look forward to more? A tour?

I'm actually working on a lot of stuff for follow up releases. The next one will be along the same lines...more toy piano experiments, with a new picture book. I'm also planning on releasing a limited-edition metal album. No joke! My wife and I already recorded a version of Enter Sandman for toy piano and electrified cello that we're quite proud of. A slightly different direction for Twink will be based on samples of vintage kiddie records from the 1940s-70s. I came across a stash of several hundred children's records and spent a year isolating funny lines and melodies from them to rearrange into modern-sounding twisted nursery songs. It'll be along the lines of The Bran Flakes, or maybe Negativland for the kindergarten set.

It kills me, but unfortunately I haven't yet figured out a live set-up for Twink that would do the album justice. There's so much going on, studio-wise, in the recorded tracks that it would be complicated to orchestrate live. I wouldn't mind arranging parts to fit a small group, but finding a back-up band of crazy musicians is also a challenge. I've been courted by Rosie O'Donnell's people and Ripley's Believe It Or Not to perform on TV, and groups like Rasputina have invited me to open for them, so I'm kind of kicking myself.

It seems to me that the tracks that stray toward techno sound...appropriate. (the best word I have, I fear) This, to me, says a lot about the escapism inherent in a lot of 'rave culture' in the US. Was it intentional satirisation of the 'glowstick kids' or am I just being tediously cerebral about some storming tunes?

TwinkHa, that's a good connection! Come to think of it, the pacifier-toting ravers who jump around to remixed Sesame Street songs would probably dig Twink. I don't know if I consciously went that route, but the big silly beats'n'bass is something I definitely appreciate. It brings up another interesting point about cultural trends. As I was working on Twink I noticed that more and more artists were starting to cater to the adult-child mindset. They Might Be Giants just released a proper children's album and surreal cartoonist Jim Woodring put out a similar book-and-CD set almost the same week as me. Maybe I'm subconsciously riding the same wave as these other folks, being nostalgic for the fun, innocent pleasures of youth. Ebay has probably had an influence on that, allowing everyone to reclaim the toys their parents threw out or never bought for them! Anyway, at some point in making the disc, I realized that I could go crazy and do a completely twisted take on youth kitsch, like t he shocking dolls and illustrations of Japanese artist Junko Minuzo, or I could anticipate a younger audience getting their hands on it. I decided to exercise some restraint and make something that anyone could enjoy. A lot of my friends have kids of their own now, and I feel a degree of social responsibility to not cause TOO many nightmares! Getting kids' reactions to Twink is wild though; I'm glad I could produce work that can be absorbed on several levels.

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