Interview: Cory Cullinan (Doctor Noize)

CoryAcousticGuitarlowres.jpgCory Cullinan, the musician/genius/madman behind Doctor Noize is both a very funny and a very loquacious man. The interview below, which was conducted in late December, was even longer what's printed below. I left out jokes and I left out even more of the obvious passion Cullinan brings to his unique family music project. Even if you've never heard of Doctor Noize (or even if you have and can't forgive him for writing that "Banana" song that's still stuck in your head), read on find out more about his musical upbringing, crazy musical plans, and views on U.S. Men's National Soccer Team coach Bob Bradley.

Zooglobble: What are your early musical memories growing up?
Cory Cullinan: Well, my parents used me as a drum. I think. My head's a little fuzzy on that. Pretty much the only rock band we listened to when I was a little kid was the Beatles, and they're still probably my favorite band. Other than that it was musical theater and classical music.

I took piano lessons, sang a lot, and played saxophone. The sax I play onstage as Dr. Noize is still the Yamaha student model I played in elementary school. The first records I bought were Queen's The Game and Saturday Night Fever... I met Howard Jones in my teens and he was super cool to me. I loved his DIY approach to making music and his unabashedly positive, anti-whine philosophical message. I learned to play a bunch of rock songs and started writing and recording my own songs on cheap Yamaha and Casio synths I bought in Hong Kong.

My most significant early musical memories were in high school with my friend Mark Van Horn. His parents were not rich, but his dad nonetheless somehow funded a makeshift eight-track recording studio in the janitor's room at the apartment complex he managed. Mark and I spent virtually all our time there when I wasn't playing soccer. We wrote and recorded entire albums together in our teens, learning both the artistic and technical craft of songwriting and recording. One of those recordings -- "Gotta Teach Others To Enjoy Life" -- is actually used unchanged in our new Doctor Noize online game, Who Dropped The Block? That's 17-year-old me writing and singing all the harmonies. We went deep.

So Mark introduced me to the recording studio and my future wife, then he died in his twenties of a brain tumor -- just like my brother. Crazy. Mark and my brother inspired much of my life's philosophy, really -- I sort of do a lot of things in honor of them -- and they were two of the funniest and most naturally brilliant guys I've ever met. And I was hooked -- on both the music and the girl.

I listened to and played a lot of rock and pop music, then started to find the genre a bit too musically conservative to keep my fire intrigued. I know everybody in mainstream America thinks rock is rebellious and challenging and classical music is conservative, but musically speaking that is precisely backward. That's a whole other conversation.

So I went to Stanford and enjoyed degrees in Music and Political Science. I performed in the Stanford Chamber Chorale with both Dave Kim (co-founder of Outblaze) and Kyle Pickett (the amazing conductor of CA's North State Symphony, who I now play concerts with). I forged a lifelong friendship with Jay Kadis, who runs the recording studio at Stanford and taught me a lot more about recording techniques, and Jay and I still get together to record some of the Doctor Noize tracks at Stanford when I'm in town. (Don't tell the university -- this interview isn't gonna be published, right???)

What specific event or two made you turn to family music?

Well, I met Jimi Hendrix in a dream, and he said... Oh sorry, wrong audience. I was talking to Berlioz about writing his Fantastic Symphony in an opium-induced frenzy of creativity and... Oh sorry, wrong audience.

The two most significant events were the births of my action/adventure superhero daughters. I [also] loved teaching high school music and conducting choirs, and found that there was nothing better than connecting with kids about music. So I wanted to apply that to younger kids like my own kids. I took my kids to see shows by a wonderful guy in the San Francisco Bay Area named Andy Z, and my kids and I decided that daddy should do that too.

What I really wanted to do was create a live show that would engage both kids and the adults in the CREATIVE PROCESS. I would watch kids' entertainment of many kinds with my children, and I'd appreciate 'em because my kids liked 'em, but not necessarily have any inherent interest in it myself. I have attempted to make my show of interest to the whole family by including insane amounts of energy for the kids, and an insane web of musicianship and technology for the adults.

I'm a one-man-band who plays a bunch of different instruments onstage and arranges and records songs live. Adults quickly get the sense that there is an element of danger involved for me onstage -- any number of technological or musical things could go wrong -- and it's fun to watch. Like watching ice skaters to see if they're gonna fall. Admit it -- that's why you watch ice skating. It's okay.

Frankly, this element of danger and insanity makes the shows interesting for me too. I also wanted the show to be very interactive and actually ABOUT the creative process. Kids are taught how to play music, but they're not often taught how to CREATE it. So that was a little bit of inspiration I felt I could add to the typical family musical experience. Kids leave Doctor Noize shows singing "Banana" -- but they also try to figure out the meter of the next song they hear, because we do stuff like that in the show.

Finally, like most of us in this business, I was a commercially unsuccessful adult artist. I loved the music and had some die-hard fans, and even had a few songs slip into movies and TV that still make me some money, but never figured out a way to make it a full-time legit profession with the crazy eclectic music I wanted to play. If I had been playing in the late sixties and early seventies instead of the corporate and minimalist rock nineties, maybe it would've flown. Or not. Who cares? It was fun while it lasted.

So really, I was just looking for a way to stay off the street and out of prison like Merle Haggard. Or not.

What was the inspiration for your different take on kids' music -- the musical theater / rock opera approach? (The question I'm pretending Stefan wrote but that I actually am writing)
There are many wonderful people doing wonderful songs for kids. Some of the best and most experienced have graced me with their friendship and support, like Roger Day and Justin Roberts and Zak Morgan and Yosi and Steve Weeks. Really good people make really good children's music. There are so many great kids' pop rock musicians out there, I figured my contribution to the traditional pop/rock genre was not necessary. It's already being done so well.

So I decided I wanted to do a "work of musical theater" approach, what Mindy at XM called "my rock operas for kids." The former teacher in me always keeps an education geek hiding underneath my overt craziness, and the insight I learned as a teacher was this:

Get people hooked on a character and a story and they will go deep with you. They will be voracious to learn.

I wanted to teach classical music history to high school kids. Everyone said I was nuts. I was nuts, by the way, and that's precisely why I could relate to the kids. My feeling was that nothing reflects passion and intellect and soul and dedication more than the great composers and their masterpieces, and despite the fact that mainstream American culture assumes kids can't handle complexity and length, I know they can. The key is getting them CURIOUS. How do you get 'em curious?

What I learned as a teacher is that all you have to do is be a storyteller and truly reflect the passion behind the music. Anyone will respond to it then. You tell the amazing story of how Berlioz conceived and wrote the Symphony Fantastique, how Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the Ninth, how there was a riot at Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring because so many people HATED it -- and then you just say:

You don't wanna hear it, do you?

And of course, they always do. Who with a heartbeat, a brain and a soul wouldn't? And once a kid is curious... They realize the music is rebellious, deep, magnificent beyond conventional imagination. Within two years my little music history class was so popular it was made a required course for freshmen at the high school where I taught. And that is maybe the coolest thing I've ever done. Sure, the occasional fart joke added to the course's appeal -- but mostly it was the journey we took together.

We're spending thousands of dollars and hours on free Learning Adventures at Doctor Noize Inc. [They] go deep inside the music in ways that conventional American wisdom says kids are too shallow to appreciate. I am telling you they're not too shallow.

BalladOfPhineasMcBoof.jpgI am now being commissioned to write a 45-60 minute orchestral work for kids that will become the fourth Doctor Noize album, book and related productions. (The first three installments, for 2010, 2011 and 2012, are already written.) This came out of Doctor Noize shows I've performed with orchestra and I couldn't be more excited about it. The next album, The Return Of Phineas McBoof (Fall 2011), has an orchestral version of "Banana" with opera superstar Nathan Gunn. It's got goofy recitatives and everything. It's my six-year-old's favorite track on the next album. She gets the joke.

So anyway, my insight was to create family musical works with interesting characters and storylines that are connected to subtle Music Appreciation Indoctrination... I figured that if I attached the journey to fun characters and stories -- just like I did when I taught high school classical music history -- many kids would hop on board and take a musical journey that was far more eclectic and challenging than the typical family album. I realize that the parents who want to hear the next Puff The Magic Dragon or easy-listening children's music might hate what I do -- and frankly, I'm happy to lose that audience. It shapes my audience into the kind of audience I want to connect with. The audience at my shows are gamers. They're ready to come up onstage and do something crazy.

You have a big sense of humor -- how has working with kids made you funnier?
Stefan, it's not that I'm laughing with them -- I'm laughing at them. Really, honestly, how could you not laugh at what I do? I left a very successful career as a high school music teacher and department head to go do something speculative at best. It was not technically the smart thing to do. I worked long hours to get exactly where I wanted in my teaching career, and then just up and retired from it once I was on top. I didn't start Doctor Noize part-time -- I left my job and went full-time with no guaranteed salary. My wife supported this and is a saint.

When you take risks in life, the only way to go is to have a sense of humor. Not to get all serious on you, but my problems are so trivial they're laughable. I've known people with real problems who dealt with them with grace and courage. My wife and daily hero is legally blind, yet a blazing success in career and motherhood. My only brother and my dad both died when I was a teenager. My best musical friend also died of a brain tumor (like my brother) in his early twenties. That all sucked. What I learned from all this -- particularly from my teenage brother's amazing response to his fatal illness, when he displayed a wisdom and courage that I try to emulate every day of my life -- is a total cliché:

Love your life. Figuring out how to do what you love, and spending time with people you love, fuels your days with joy, meaning and purpose. Everything else is inefficient fussing. Some people will not love what you do, and that's fine, because if you do what you love, you will always find an audience. People connect with people who are obviously doing what they love, because most people wish that's what they were doing and wanna know how they can gather the courage to do it, even if people think it's crazy. So life is simple: Define your version of awesome and then go be it. Don't worry if it's not someone else's version of awesome. And when it doesn't go your way, try to redefine awesome by having the grace and courage that my brother had in extreme circumstances.

If you look at every single Doctor Noize character, the constant is this: They're doing what they love even though some people think it's crazy. Phineas is an imperfect character who essentially says to you: I love you because you have the courage to do what you think is right. Whether I like what you do is irrelevant; I am inspired by you because you are pursuing your passion. Have that courage and find people to connect with through it.

What I learned that is slightly less of a cliché is this: No matter how well you sketch things out, there are gonna be times of stability and times of instability in your life. So you might as well come armed with a sense of humor and the knowledge that life is not generally gonna hand you the keys to the kingdom on a platter. People are not gonna agree with you on everything, so don't get all fussed up when they don't. Love 'em anyway, even if you think they're ridiculous. They probably are -- but so are you.

Then, when things do go your way: You think that's just as insanely funny as when they don't. But you're really the same guy either way. Or girl. I'm really the same girl either way. Or guy.

How did the partnership with Outblaze come about?
I threatened them. I said: "Hey Big Company Outblaze, if you don't sign a deal with Doctor Noize, then you won't have a deal with Doctor Noize." I think that was a really compelling argument on my part and it really put our partnership over the top. Outblaze's animation and game studio, Dream Cortex, has done all sorts of amazing production work through partnerships with Hello Kitty, Tom & Jerry, Turner, Ben10, and Paris Hilton. Okay, not Paris Hilton -- I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

Anyway, I was touring in the San Francisco Bay Area, and ran into the co-founder of Outblaze and Dream Cortex, Dave Kim. I hadn't seen him for over a decade, since our Stanford student days singing in the Stanford Chamber Chorale together, and had no idea he'd become this titan of industry. That's my term, not his. Anyway, Dave heard about Doctor Noize, came to a show in Silicon Valley, saw a bunch of screaming kids having a great time, and said: "Let's do this!"

That's the way things usually work in great businesses where people are in it for more than the money: Creative friendly people meet other creative friendly people and stuff happens. Just about everyone I've met in this bizness -- from my peer recording artists to the lady who books the local library -- is in it to get inspired and do great fun things for people. It's a fantastic bizness of fantastically well-intentioned people.

Dave is a gifted musician, and so is Outblaze's co-founder Yat, who's a cellist trained at the Vienna Conservatory. Dave even sits on the Board of the world's largest classical label, Naxos -- and he really likes the idea of a family brand with insanely high musicianship. We get crazy talent on the recordings -- I've found that after I give my "I'm slightly crazy, you're awesome, and here's what I wanna do with you on this wildly unconventional family album" pitch to (X Established Musican), they always wanna do it. So far I have a 100% recruiting record on talent I seek for the recordings. (I'm sure someone will pass on the offer at some point.) And they usually say something like: "Nobody ever asks me to do crazy stuff anymore, this is a blast."

Most people think kids can only handle a simple two-minute song about a simple subject. I completely and totally and vociferously and (enter an even more obstinate adjective here) disagree. Kids are way more curious and open to creativity than adults. The truth is: It's adults who are set in their ways and can't handle as much wild creativity as kids. But when adults go somewhere with kids, they drop their preconceptions and will open their mind to many more things.

That, in a nutshell, is the best thing about doing family music and multimedia. It brings generations together, inspires kids, and reminds adults what life is about. The audience gifts me that reminder every show I play.

What are you looking forward to being able to do with Outblaze that you couldn't do before?
Um, everything. I get to realize my dreams with them. I'm like a kid in a candy store with Dream Cortex (Outblaze's animation and game production studio). I could not praise them more highly. I get to come up with ideas for games and videos and books and websites and educational curriculums, and then I have this wonderful team of creative animators and programmers who make those visions a reality with me.

Also, I get to fly to Hong Kong. This should not be underemphasized, because there are these amazing new planes that go to Hong Kong and you can watch like four movies on them and play games on your personal screen. I saw Tropic Thunder last time. Quality film, should have won 107 Oscars. Also, they give you free little booties for your feet. I don't know why.

So now in addition to albums, the books are all in 3D animation, we do 3D animated videos, online games, iPhone and iPad games, educational multimedia curriculums, merchandize, and Doctor Noize transcontinental airplanes. Except the transcontinental airplanes.

I am up late working like a dog and having Skype meetings with the production crew in Hong Kong more often than not now, but the metaphor is apt: Dogs love what they do and make no distinction between work and play.

What trepidations did you have upon signing the deal?
I had a lot of trepidations, and they all seem ridiculous now. My trepidations centered around this: I am at heart an indie guy. I like being the little guy who shakes things up and acts like companies with money on the line would never act. It's fun. I know that many of my wonderful peers in family music feel the same way -- we're drawn to the genre because we love kids and because in many ways, this genre is the closest thing to indie rock left. You can get fairly "big" in this genre and still be quite small. That is dreamy.

Outblaze has been amazing and given me the opportunity of a lifetime. They basically said, in a nutshell:

We like the fact that you're crazy and have all these wild ideas. We have brilliant animators and programmers and we think the combination of your creative and musical ideas and our established production house will be garbanzos. (Okay, they didn't say garbanzos...) We're not trying to make you go all vanilla -- we have production people who very much get what you're doing and can help you make it even better.

Everybuddy at the new company really enjoys working together and believes in what we're doing. Of course we don't know how successful we'll be commercially, there will be bumps in the road, and you never know what will transpire around the corner. But we do know that we really feel strongly about what we do and are very proud of the productions. That is an opportunity many creative people never get -- to do what they want to do at the production level they dream of -- and I'm consciously thankful for it every day.

These interview answers are almost as long as Waterworld.

What's next for you/Doctor Noize?
Our first iPhone app -- Bananas! -- just came out. Today it is #20 in Kazakhstan. I am not making that up. I have no explanation for this. I recorded a whole album's worth of different versions of the song "Banana" -- all in different genres -- for it. A shiny new single -- "I'm With The Band" -- and reimagined rerelease of The Ballad Of Phineas McBoof -- CD and book -- was also just released. And a brand new 3D animated video of "Banana," a new online game with its own new Doctor Noize soundtrack, and an extensive Learning Adventures educational curriculum are free online at

Later this year we release The Return Of Phineas McBoof -- a full line of multimedia products based on the sequel to The Ballad Of Phineas McBoof. Production on Return has already begun -- in fact, the storyline and songs of the first five Doctor Noize albums and books are already written and sketched out. We have some really interesting things up our sleeves in the years to come... The other multimedia products will flow from these albums and books.

If we can sell enough of these productions, we'll keep making 'em. If we can't, we'll stop. The only thing I can promise is that great fun, purpose and passion will be poured without restraint into the productions, the musicianship and animation will be top notch, and the results will reflect that. Whether my version of awesome is your version of awesome is of course up to you.

What do you think of re-signing Bob Bradley to the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team for another 4 years?
Finally an important question. Bradley didn't call me up to the US camp this year, even though Team USA was hurting for forwards and I briefly held a roster spot on the Stanford Varsity Soccer Team many years ago before ending my Somewhat Serious Athletic Ambitions to go all in for music. I feel my omission was an oversight on Bradley's part. I mean, no US forwards have scored for two World Cups straight, so I pose this irrefutable rhetorical question:

What harm would it have done to start me at forward this World Cup? I can guarantee you it would not have created a drop-off in the measurable metric of "forward goal scoring production." (For those keeping score, I'm pretty sure all rhetorical questions are, in fact, irrefutable -- the glorious twin sister byproduct of unanswerable...) So I was kind of hoping the new coach would gimme a ring. Then I find out the new coach is the old coach.