I struggled with writing this introduction to my interview with Southern California-based musician Todd McHatton. Is he a musician? Is he a puppeteer? Is he an animator? Is he a Harry Nilsson obsessive? Is he a musician/puppeteer/animator/Nilsson obsessive? [OK, he's not the last -- that's way too silly too write.]
In some ways, yes, he's all of the above, having done all of those things throughout his career in the kindie field. He's released six psychedelically poppy family music albums -- the latest, Super Audio Sunshine, was released last month -- plus collaborations with 3 different musicians (and more on the way). But since he plays live relatively rarely and has a life outside of music, he's still more of an enigma to me than many kindie artists.
So I did what I normally do when I want to know more about something or someone -- I ask questions. In our e-mail interview, McHatton talks about being led down the rabbit hole by Neil Young, why he became his high school's class president, and creating his own Marvel universe.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Todd McHatton: I grew up completely soaked in music. My brother and I had a small record player that we kept on the floor of our room next to a giant stack of Disney songbook records. I memorized every bit of those albums, playing them over and over. We also spent what felt like a lot of time around my father's musician friends. They would play guitar and sing harmonies. I was absolutely hooked at a very early age. These guys seemed like superheroes to me, like they understood things on a deeper level. They seemed more relaxed and funny than the other adults.
I picked up the guitar when I was eight years old and dove all the way in. I wanted to know it all. I watched their fingers, I poured through songbooks, I analyzed everything I heard. I was obsessed.
One night, my younger brother and I were invited to join my dad's friend Dez in his recording studio. When we arrived he showed us his small home studio with a reel-to-reel. Dez explained how it all worked. He was funny and he made everything seem magical and fun. We didn't have to be perfect. We were there to have a good time. We sang the backing vocals on his version of Neil Young's “Helpless.” That was definitely the beginning of the rabbit hole for me. I've been lost in it ever since.
Our record collection at home was pure pop glory – the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, ELO, Abba, and Supertramp were all big for me. I listened to them endlessly. Upon seeing my voracious enthusiasm for music, more of my dad's friends began lending me stacks of records. I remember two incredibly enlightening stacks in particular – one, a stack of classic blues, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. The other was a stack of Frank Zappa records. Both of these opened up unimaginable dimensions to my young mind. And that music is still opening unimaginable dimensions in my mind to this day.
What were your creative outlets growing up?
We always had plenty of art supplies around our house. My mother worked my brother and I through nearly every single project in Steven Caney's Playbook. These projects, along with my portable cassette tape recorder, a growing arsenal of guitars, a drum set, and our growing comic book collection provided endless creative outlets and inspiration. My brother and I, deeply inspired by Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, and our comics, would collaborate on comics and stories written in rhyme. Inspired by Doctor Demento and early Saturday Night Live, I would interview family members at parties and piece together comedy sketches with fake commercials and musical numbers on my tape recorder.
Through my entire childhood I was always starting and participating in bands. My heavy metal band, Crimson Steele, gigged nearly every single weekend throughout high school. I even ran for senior class president (and won) just so that my bands could play at lunches. Eventually I received a Tascam Portastudio that allowed me to finally dive into my beloved multi-tracking. From that point on, a day didn't go by when I wasn't recording something. Stacks of cassettes piled up around my room. I still have a lot of them but I haven't ever mustered up enough interest to go back and listen through them, whenever I have a spare moment I am much more compelled to make something new.
Why did you start making music for kids and families? Your music has rarely if ever touched on familiar "kids music" subjects -- sometimes I wonder if it's "kids' music" at all. A lot of kids' musicians don't necessarily consider themselves as making kids' music, but… do you consider yourself as making kids' music?
My fascination with music has really known no boundaries. If you look at people's iTunes playlists these days, it appears that almost no one only listens to music exclusively in one single category, and yet, artists seem to get boxed into a single genre. I've never been particularly comfortable with boxes, with being defined. I'd like to think that we're all much too varied and complex and that we all aspire to defy any attempt at strict classification or definition. Children by nature, to me, seem to naturally defy any categorization. Kids appear to me to be complete, unbridled, undefinable human potential. When they're happy or excited they literally jump up and down and shriek.
When I sit down to make some music it is nearly always with this idea of a beginners mindset. Sometimes, to get there, I will tune a guitar into something where I have no idea what is going to come out when I touch the strings. I like to play nonsense on a beat up old instrument that shouldn't necessarily sound “good.” I love listening to all different kinds of music so when I put together a record it's the record that I want to listen to. The genre of “kids music” seems completely wide open to interpretation to me. The only priority I see is that it's rich and imaginative. I find it much more interesting and exciting to write about fantastical, dynamic, bizarre things then to rehash any common, tired, depressing, dark subject matter. So, I guess I write “kids music” because it is the only “genre” that I am completely comfortable with.
Was there a particular organizing principle or artistic impulse behind Super Audio Sunshine?
Super Audio Sunshine is a riff on everything that I love. I'm obsessed with sunshine. I love the warmth, the beach, the tropics. My studio is solar-powered. I also love comics and, despite the overwhelming glut of superhero everything, I still love the whole superpower thing. The inside cover features the same large hotel-looking structure that is featured in our first video “Every Little Monster.” This represents a celestial tropical paradise resort where all of our songs and stories hang and relax between trips across the universe. Our extended family includes these characters, and our monster friends, Marvy, Finch, and Larry. They're all one under the sun of Super Audio Sunshine.
What draws you back again and again to the character of Marvy Monstone in terms of writing music for him?
Just like everyone else, I love strange, funny, compelling characters. I've been creating them since I was a small child, pretending with my toys, and then drawing them and making stories about them, and then songs. I always wanted a set cast of characters with their own world – my own Peanuts gang, Pogo gang, my own Marvel universe. I wanted a team that I could write and create for that could be put into any situation I cared to put them in and that I could always count on being who they are – real, reacting in real ways – where they could/would pretend or play another role in a realistic way if the situation was fitting.
In addition to this, I've always made puppets. I have boxes and bins filled with my puppet creations in various states of completion. Jim Henson was an enormous inspiration for me. When my son was born I just happened to naturally entertain him with my bare hands. I actually talked characters to him with my puppet-less fingers and he was enchanted with it. They'd pop up when we'd be in a long line, or when he was at the doctor, or before bedtime. These two characters eventually became the voices and personalities of Marvy and Finch.
When he got a little older we made a big purple monster puppet and made a goofy little song with him. It came out quick and it made us all laugh. We grabbed a cape, superhero mask, and Marvy and went to the beach and made a quick little music video. For some reason that little bit of fun was a revelation into how nothing was quite as entertaining as pure character. When Easter was rolling around I got an idea to take out Marvy again and quickly laid down a track with my daughter. We went outside with the iPhone soon after and made a little video to go with that track.
That bit of quick fun turned into a hit and opened up a world of opportunities. It became something so special to so many people that I still get teary eyed whenever I think about it. It was no longer only ours and that is beautiful. I keep going back to Marvy Monstone, Finch, and Larry because I love them. My family loves them. They are family. We haven't even begun to scratch the surface on all the things we're going to do with them.
You've also had a series of artistic partnerships, some of which haven't even surfaced publicly - what was the impetus behind starting them all?
Yes, there are so many beautiful, creative, like minded people in this burgeoning community of family music. I really owe so much to Jeff Bogle for sharing my music with Morgan Taylor (of Gustafer Yellowgold fame). I was a little blown away at this as I had been fascinated with Morgan's stuff and how much I felt like we had in common – the whole thing, aesthetically, musically – I just knew that we were coming from the same place. As it turned out, we were. Morgan and I turned out to be like brothers. I love the guy.
From there the whole idea of harnessing the amazing technology available to us opened up all kinds of possibilities. We're able to create “together” sitting in our own creative spaces thousands of miles apart. Now, when I listen to some music that I love I can not only consider the possibilities of what it would sound like to mash up my thing with it, I can actually do it. The creative back and forth is so exciting and full of energy.
The spirit of sharing, of openness, and learning how other people work is fascinating. Making trippy music and cartoons with Todd & Cookie, making lovely, sweet piano music with Lori Henriques, going deep down the pop tunnel with the Pop Ups, have all brought me to new places and influenced my own music. These adventures have also brought some of the most interesting and wonderful friendships of my entire life.
How do you stay organized between all your projects, artistic or otherwise?
I think I've developed pretty solid organizational techniques over time as I've always thrived on having too many balls in the air. I enjoy exploring the potentials with technology and art. Google Docs, Dropbox, and a couple of different project apps pretty much make up the current organizational toolbox for me though. All of the “Todd McHatton” stuff I do is completely self-made, from the writing, performance, and recording, to the artwork and distribution. We've turned it into a beautiful little creative business. Everyone in the family participates in some way and it's a total blast. I also highly recommend the new book from Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc., for anyone obsessed with the glories of harnessing creativity.
What's your favorite Harry Nilsson memory?
I have to name a few. The first time I heard The Point and then, soon after, saw the cartoon, were huge moments for me. I listened to that album for much of my life. Then, seeing the last live production of The Point in Hollywood. Harry was a part of it and it was just before he passed away. My wife and I were newlyweds and I was overwhelmingly excited to share my passion with her. The next was a surprise birthday gift from my wife of actual animation cells from The Point. And the last is the first time I saw the premiere of Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talking About Him? and actually talking to Richard Perry, the producer of Nilsson Schmilsson, and various old friends of Harry. It was an amazing evening. I visit Harry's gravesite occasionally and lay my gratitude out to him and the universe.
What's next for you?
We're having a blast putting together videos and comics for Super Audio Sunshine right now. We're working on a series of shows featuring Marvy and the other monsters along with some of the new characters from the album. Morgan and I are going back and forth on a new Underbirds album and there's a new Todd & Cookie EP and cartoon on the way as well.