By Annette Hinkle
What’s yellow, cute, lives somewhere in the woods of Minnesota and came from the sun?
It’s Gustafer Yellowgold, the animated creation of singer/songwriter Morgan Taylor.
If you are a kid, this is something you might already know … it’s also something you might already know if you’ve been to a Wilco concert lately.
For years, Morgan Taylor, a native of Dayton, Ohio with a passion for cartooning, plied his craft as a musician in New York City playing in bands that frequented many a Brooklyn bar. But it was his invention of a little yellow cartoon character and the songs he writes describing his adventures that ended up leading him to the big time with music (and videos) created for kids.
But not just kids, as it turns out.
“It’s funny, when I opened for Wilco, there was a bit where I was saying the exact same stuff to adults that I say to kids,” notes Taylor. “There’s something about disarming 3,000 Wilco fans by saying ‘How do you feel about dinosaurs?’”
“Some guy started heckling me. He thought it was stupid. But the people around him were like ‘Shut up!’ People were taking it in,” adds Taylor. “It is a startling bit of odd pop art.”
Startling, and also tinged with a bit of irony.
“I would’ve died to open for Wilco when I was with my band,” admits Taylor. “I gave all that up. Then suddenly I’m backstage opening for Wilco with my guitar and this screen. How did I get there and not even have a band?”
He got there, it turns out, by creating a unique art form that seems to strike a chord in both children and adults (many of them not even parents).
The way it came about was serendipity — much like Gustafer Yellowgold’s very existence.
Taylor explains that he grew up drawing and always wanted to be a comic book artist. But later, an interest in playing music surfaced and cartooning was relegated to side projects and occasional freelance work. Taylor’s grand scheme when he moved to New York was to work as a professional cartoonist and pursue music on the side. But it didn’t work out that way, he says, because he hadn’t been all that focused in the cartooning field while his competition was.
“It was only in the six months before I moved to New York that I drew a portfolio,” he says.
Lots of rejection letters followed, but amongst those portfolio drawings was a Gustafer-like character doing funny things — like jumping off a ladder onto a cake. That gave birth to the first music video “I Jump on Cake” in 2005.
“It went over so well I started to do variations of the mistreatment of food from punching cheese to the latest, which is the ‘Pancake Smack Down,’” adds Taylor.
Each song, which he plays live at performances, is accompanied by an animated video of Gustafer and company providing the action. An unusual, but amazingly successful genre that Taylor would’ve never envisioned a decade ago.
“The cool thing about it is I devised my own formula by accident. Now that I see what it is I get to stay the course,” he says. “I can be as weird as I want to be – it’s very liberating. Pop music with this absurd concept … It feels natural.”
“Here I had been slogging it out with bands in bars for years and wearing the skinny ties,” he notes. “But it’s the silly songs with this cartoon character that get a record deal.”
Those in the know when it comes to Gustafer Yellowgold are likely to show up at Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre this Saturday when Taylor brings his kid (and adult) act back to Sag Harbor (he’s been here a number of times before and always sells out – as he does at many venues).
But what’s it all about and why does he think his music and animation click with such a divergent audience?
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s probably because when I write, I write for adults and the funny thing is some of the adults that come to the show don’t know how much it is for them.”
In fact, Taylor initially didn’t know how much the music was for them either. The whole genesis started out as a batch of Taylor’s original songs — some of which were whimsical and could be found peppered throughout his catalog.
“I didn’t sit down and decide ‘I’m going to entertain children.’ It was a project we thought was going to be a picture book,” says Taylor referring to his wife (and business partner) Rachel Loshak. “The picture books turned into the video. The songs were these kind of sweet little poem songs about the moon. There were also some about fictitious relationships with animals. The combination of the music and strange little songs and the characters caught people’s attention.”
Those characters include not just Gustafer, but a whole cast of friendly creatures who populate his animated world. Taylor notes that Gustafer’s pet eel has become a prominent costar and a fashion conscious pterodactyl also has its share of fans. The music takes the videos a step further and pulls everything together.
“It sort of has a retro look about it,” says Taylor. “It looks like something you would’ve seen in the ‘60s or ‘70s and the music is like alternative pop.”
“But there’s some higher concepts within the lyrics you might not experience in other kids stuff,” he adds. “When people first saw it — there are mortality references — it caught them off guard and pulled them in.”
Though exploration of that particular realm was not done consciously, Taylor notes that once the reaction followed, the decision was made to keep it that way.
“If there’s something on an album I’m a little uncomfortable with or I think I went too far, it really works,” he says.
So when you get right down to it, is Taylor actually writing for children or adults? Is he now self conscious about treading that line?
“I think I am self conscious, but I tend to default toward the grownups if that happens,” he confides. “The kids aren’t going to roll their eyes. I have found when the parents are at the concerts with the children and engaged, it’s a much richer experience for everybody.”
Gustafer Yellowgold will come to Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre this Saturday, January 19, 2013 with shows at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The theater is in the lower level of the Christ Episcopal Church Parish Hall on East Union Street, Sag Harbor. Call 725-4193 for reservations.