Check out this description of the arrival of spring: “As April came down from above, expanding the meaning of love, exactly the opposite of cold and jaded.” So, who wrote it? Emily Dickinson? Damien Rice? Nope: it’s a song about an animated ant from the newest Gustafer Yellowgold DVD, Mellow Fever. This kind of lyrical sophistication, paired with a gang of minimally-animated characters, has made the musical cartoon act a crossover hit since its creation in 2005. If you’re not familiar with Gustafer: he is a friendly yellow creature from the sun who sets out in search of a “cooler” life and finds it in Minnesota. There he befriends an eel, a dragon, and a flightless pterodactyl. Babble spoke with Gustafer’s creator, the illustrator, writer, and musician Morgan Taylor, about cake-jumping, ’70s soft rock, and how parenthood has influenced his alien alter ego. — Lindsay Armstrong
You started out playing in indie rock bands. How did you make the transition into being a children’s artist?
When I first came to New York I actually tried to get work as an illustrator. I took my portfolio everywhere and collected a big, fat stack of rejection letters. Then I got into the music scene here. I had a band called Morgan Taylor’s Rock Group. We had a moment, but in New York that can fizzle out fast. Morgan Taylor’s Rock Group broke up and I put out a solo album. But after I played my record release party, I just felt like something was missing. Rachel, my wife, said, “Why don’t you do that kids’ book you’ve been thinking about?”
I had this stockpile of songs from when I first moved to New York and I was feeling really stimulated. I chose some songs from that, the ones that were sort of more colorful or silly or pretty, and I drew out images to accompany them. I had the “Pterodactyl Song, “The Eel Song,” and I had this song “I Am From the Sun.” As I was drawing out the images, I realized that the songs were written in first person, but the speaker wasn’t me. It was more like a fictitious character. Years before I had started drawing this yellow, pointy-headed guy. He was floating around in my brain. I thought that maybe this project was the home for that character. And then it hit me, “Yes, of course! He’s the one from the sun!” I drew out five or so of these songs and put them together in a book to try to get it published. One of the people we showed it to asked me if I wanted to animate it and we loved that idea. Once we put out the first DVD, the reaction was just instantaneous. All of the press started saying really nice things and I was like, “Wow, all I had to do was add cartoons to my music and now everybody’s paying attention!” The song “I Jump on Cake” was originally a drawing in my portfolio.
Yes, I was wondering whether or not kids go home after your show and jump on cake.
[Laughs] I’ve had parents email me to say that their kids do.
You started Gustafer before you had children of your own. Has being a dad changed the project for you?
If anything, it’s made us more business-oriented. Now we have to think along the lines of paying our bills and raising a family. Being a dad has made me realize, if this is what I’m going to do, I have to really be committed and do it.
What bands do you listen to that impact your songwriting?
I think I’m always trying to write Bread songs. Do you know the band Bread? Their biggest song was called “If.” They were the premiere, ’70s soft-rock balladeers: beautiful strings, heart-wrenching songs, a tiny bit cheesy. I think I loved them because my older brother and sister’s record collection was in the house when I was born. I inherited their taste.
So you listen to a lot of ’70s music?
Yeah, I do. I feel like that’s the nucleus of Gustafer. When I was listening to that music, that’s the time of my life when I started to be creative, around six or seven years old. For me, writing music is like chasing the feeling you have at that age. I guess that’s where I tend to go for inspiration.
Six-year-olds just look at me like, “Is this real?”
What do you think is up next for Gustafer?
Right now we’re mixing and editing the live DVD. We recorded a show in San Francisco with a symphony orchestra made up of public school students. It was amazing. We’re going to try to put it out next spring.
You have reached a pretty wide audience through Gustafer. Why do you think it’s struck a chord with people of different ages?
I think that there are so many levels to it. For really young kids, Gustafer has bright images and soft, melodic music. With the six- and seven-year-olds, they’re right at that age when you begin to conceptualize. They are the best to play for because they’re just looking at me like, “Is this real?” Kids who are a little older start to pick up on the humor. There are even some teenagers who come to my shows. I think they just like Gustafer because it’s kind of weird and trippy. [Laughs.] But, my target demographic is probably people my own age.
Yeah. Most people my age have kids who are four, five and six, and they’re mainly the ones coming to my shows. I’m of the generation that, when we were a bit younger, all we did was go out to bars to see bands. Now that we’re parents we can’t really do that so often. My feeling is, why should those people have to suffer through kids’ music that’s, what I call the “silly hat bands”? You’re allowed to like whatever you want, but there are a lot of people, like me, who grew up with alternative music, like R.E.M. Those are the people who have young kids now and I want to play something that appeals to them as much as it appeals to their children.