How would you describe Gustafer to someone who's never met him?
He came from the sun and landed in Minnesota. Now he's living a Zenlike existence through whimsical pop songs that tell his story. He's kind of egoless, exploring the world through innocent eyes. He's got a unique outlook on things--and a very high body temperature.
How did he end up in Minnesota? He seems very happy to be living in a cooler world.
He set the controls on his sun pod for someplace greener and colder. Once he got here, he met the characters who became his best friends. He wants us to slow down and appreciate the smaller things. His world is deep and microscopic at the same time. He looks at the world the way a child would.
In your shows and on DVDs, you tell the Gustafer Yellowgold story with music and animation. How did he start out? Was he a character in your head, a drawing, or a song?
It came together almost by accident. I've always played music. I had the image of Gustafer back in the '90s, when I was working in a record store. I spent a lot of time doodling, and I came up with this little yellow character who would do weird things. I never had a story for him. Then in 2004 my band broke up, and I wanted to do something other than starting a new rock band again. I had all these whimsical, funny first-person absurd story songs. Around that time my wife Rachel suggested I write a children's book, so I started drawing picture books with this yellow character. And I realized that I'd been creating his world all along, inadvertently, through these songs.
So you discovered you already had songs that fit the character?
I looked through my repertoire, and the material that stayed in became the framework for Gustafer. All his friends had theme songs. His back story came about through the song, "I'm from the Sun." That explains everything. Once I had that, it came together. I had seen art and music as separate things; I didn't realize what would happen when I combined them. I drew out images from the song lyrics, and it developed from there. The reaction we got was so strong and immediate we knew we were on to something.
As a visual artist and a musician, do you consider yourself more of one than the other?
I was playing music as a young teenager in the '80s. To me, the music was more gratifying, and my art was on the side. Because when you're drawing comics, you wonder who's going to see it. Most artists want a reaction, and you get that when you play music. My mom would always say, "I wish you'd do something with your art." When I moved to New York from Ohio in 1999, I tried to get work as an illustrator.
Where do you get the ideas for your songs?
My desire to develop the characters dictates my songwriting. For example, I wanted to develop the pterodactyl and his obsession with fashion, so I wrote "Panther Stamps Pants." And I wrote "Underwater Stars" as the background story about Gustafer's pet eel.
How do kids react to Gustafer? What kind of things do you hear from children about him?
They ask specific questions, like "What does Gustafer do?" or "What does he eat?" And especially, "Is Gustafer real?" That's a fun one to answer. We're making a mock-umentary, which has a scientist reporting on Gustafer sightings in Minnesota. There's a lot of interaction at the concerts, and when the kids ask questions it gives me room to improvise. They want to know why he left home, and if he ever sees his family.
What do you tell them?
He left just to see how things would go. And he's got a giant walk-in mailbox in his front yard, where he keeps a device his brother invented. It's a communicator, kind of like Skype, so he can stay in touch with his family. The same way Mork had Orson.
Gustafer seems to attract fans of all ages.
Well, people always like to say that it's music for kids that parents can enjoy too. But I think because of the visuals, a different experience happens. It looks like a preschool cartoon character, but our videos and shows have the text, as well, so kids who can read get more out of it. It's more conceptual than typical kids' stuff. Teenagers and older kids get into the fact that it's kind of weird and absurd. Young adults like the psychedelic aspect to it. For people my own age who have kids, there's a nostalgic feel to it, which comes from growing up in the '70s. It doesn't fit neatly into any category. If you try to pigeonhole it, you miss something.
Was it a conscious decision to include on-screen lyrics with the songs? It obviously encourages kids to read.
That came about because when we started, we were making books. We wanted there to be reading involved. We've had quite a few parents say that their kids have learned unusual words, like "oblivion."
Having been in a rock band, do you find it different performing for children?
Well, unless we're playing at a school, the audience is always half adults and half kids at the concerts. The biggest difference is the time of day. I much prefer playing at eleven in the morning than eleven at night!
When describing your work, critics often mention The Beatles and Yellow Submarine. What music did you love most when you were growing up?
I was very into '70s pop stuff and AM radio. That's my comfort zone. When I'm sitting down to create and write or draw, I'm chasing this innocent euphoria from my first creative awakening as a child; it's when your imagination is in full force for the first time. Certain music, certain pop culture and art--there's this feeling of an innocent connection to the universe. It's a fantasy, a conflict-free world. I discovered The Beatles much later.
Do you have any children?
Our son, Harvey, is 18 months. We have boxes of Gustafer dolls in the house, and he's just now beginning to point to them and reach for them. He's starting to put it together, though I don't think he knows yet that we invented Gustafer! He's been to about 100 Gustafer concerts.
Has being a parent changed your relationship to Gustafer in any way?
It makes us work even harder. It's helped us focus and structure what we do. We have a unique opportunity and we want it to work out.
Which songs are the biggest fan favorites?
"Panther Stamps Pants" has become a favorite from Mellow Fever, our third DVD, which came out last March. We try to represent all three DVDs when we play live. The first one gets heavier play because it has "I'm From the Sun" and "Your Eel," which are staples of the show. "I Jump on Cake" always has to be in the show, because it's a consistent crowd-pleaser. So is "Rocket Shoes." From our second DVD, "Pinecone Lovely" and "Mustard Slugs" are popular.
What inspired "I Jump on Cake"? Where did that image come from?
Maybe that's my own subliminal message about weight control. I was a chubby kid, so I've always had to be conscious of everything. When I'm engaged with cake I'd rather throw it on the floor!
What's up next for you?
We're planning more songs, more DVDs, more shows; 2010 is going to be more of a production year. Each new DVD requires a lot of drawing, and it takes a long time, so I'm going to work on that as much as I can this year. The next DVD is going to have a full narrative story arc, and we'll have a new stage show to reflect the new DVD. It should be ready by spring 2011.
Anything else you'd like to add?
"Keep it yellow." That's what I tell people at the end of every show. It's become our mantra.
Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.