I played in five or six pretty serious bands through the ’80s and ’90s. One that people may remember was called the Life and Times in high school, which became Glee and Beak, my band with David Poe. When we broke up, David moved to NYC, and I joined OO OO WA with some high school friends, then played with Mink until that started fracturing in the late 1990s. I moved to NYC in 1999 and immediately got a job as a sound engineer, joined a songwriting club and got this schooling by immersion.
So how did the music and children’s cartoon concept happen?
I am a cartoonist as well. I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was younger, and my goal was to move to New York City and become an illustrator.
I had a bunch of rich, more poetic, strange and humorous story songs that I had written, sung in this fictitious first person. After my group Morgan Taylor’s Rock Group ended, my wife suggested I do a kids’ book project. When I started that project in 2003, I thought, I’ll take some of these smaller songs and illustrate pictures to go with them.
How did the character Gustafer Yellowgold come to life?
One of those old songs was call “Tiny Purple Moon,” and it seemed like a lullaby. In the very beginning, it’s sung by somebody, and I thought, “who is that, who’s singing it?”
And one of my jobs when I worked at Gem City Records was to write up the new releases on the board, and I would draw a funny cartoon a lot. I drew this yellow cat-faced looking guy, and that basically became Gustafer later. Once I started writing up the stories, we started showing them to people and people were excited about it right away. We printed up copies, bounded them at home with spray glue and twine and made 20 copies of the book and passed them around.
Fast forward 10 months, and I have 10 animated music videos. Now I’m starting to write the next album, and I’m trying to see what this guy’s doing, what’s his story. One of the songs I had written from my old band was called “I Am From the Sun” which was about feeling different, and it just clicked: I wrote this song for this guy (Gustafer) I didn’t even know yet. And that’s how that world was born.
What is “children’s music” to you?
I don’t think there’s one answer: “Wheels on the Bus” is a kids’ song; “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’ Garden” work too. You can also play “I Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd and kids can absolutely love it.
I have my own criteria and formula; the beat is important, and memorable, catchy lyrics help. I think then you’re just describing popular music, it’s music that’s intended to pull you in upon first listen.
What pushed you to continue with Gustafer?
Once I saw what people liked about it, I knew that going forward, I could create without thinking too hard about it. It was more about listening to the parents who would speak to me after the show and tell me how much they enjoy the fact that it’s something that they can listen to as well. It sounds retro to them, and the kids like the cartoons.
The best part of it is that I have created my own job where I get to be myself. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am to have that. That’s why maybe this project has done the best out of everything that I’ve done: people have sensed that it’s pure and honest and there’s no pretense. It’s just my music and my art and lyrics. When I write a song, I don’t think about a child listening to it. I think about whether I would be proud to play this song for my heroes; could I play this in front of (Wilco frontman) Jeff Tweedy.
Describe the Dayton music scene when you were growing up.
For me, 1985-1999 was my chunk of the music scene, and we were under the heavy influence of the early REM records. That was the hot college rock band we were all aspiring to, the benchmark of success and coolness. We opened for Guided By Voices in the summer of 1986 at Canal Street Tavern, now Canal Public House. It was a really great alternative music boom. Mink was born into that creative party pop: when Mink was forming, the Breeders, Brainiac, Guided By Voices were all doing really well, and gaining success on a national level. Dayton was pretty cool.
After I moved, all I knew was just the names of bands that I heard, but I do like the Motel Beds. I really think they’re great. I listen to them and Heartless Bastards. Erika Wennerstrom is amazing; she was just starting to bloom musically right when I was leaving.
Where did you hang out as a kid in the Miami Valley?
As a kid, we would hang out at SkateWorld in Kettering. We used to go to King’s Island, go to Delco Park for the fireworks, spent time as a teenager at Caesar Creek State Park. When I was old enough to go to bars, Walnut Hills (now Jimmie’s Ladder 11) was a home base as a bar, but I also spent time at the Southern Belle, Canal Street.
What has struck you as the biggest changes to Dayton since you moved to New York?
The Dayton Dragons are new since I left, so that and the development of that whole area is pretty cool. To me, downtown was where I went to go to shows at Gilly’s and Canal Street Tavern, and then the Oregon District, of course, and Neon Movies.
Brown Street has really changed: Milano’s moved down the block and became 100 times bigger. I love all of those places — Milanos, Flying Pizza, Skyline. I compare all subs, pizza, and chili to those three. It’s great to see that Milano’s has multiple locations, I go there to eat and the food is exactly the way I remember it.
What’s next for you and Gustafer Yellowgold?
This is my last CD/DVD in this particular format. I’ve been putting out these DVD packages where I record the album and I hand-draw a music video for every song, and I’m not going to do that for every song that I write anymore. It’s so time-consuming; that’s all I’ll ever do if I keep going.
I’m also recording music for other kids’ music projects, and I get to stay home with my two young sons. To make this whole thing work, I have to play a lot of live shows.
I've been developing a pilot of a Gustafer show, that would be music video and narrative story together, that's another big project on the horizon. I just found out that Gustafer has its own channel on Roku, which is pretty neat!
As a cartoonist, who’s your favorite superhero?
I always wanted to be Spiderman. Peter Parker was the nerd with the secret power. He was the first nerd, he was the weakling who got picked on and then he showed everyone.