When rocker Morgan Taylor met singer and songwriter Rachel Loshak, it was the beginning of a love story. What they didn’t anticipate was that their story would also include a curious yellow sun creature named Gustafer Yellowgold. Since the two first met in 1999, they’ve married, welcomed a son, Harvey, now 21 months old, and, in between, created one of the most imaginative music shows to hit the children’s entertainment scene to date. Described by “The New York Times” as “a cross between ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Dr. Seuss,” Gustafer Yellowgold is a series of musical tales conceived by Taylor that tell the story of a small golden “solarian” who travels to earth from the sun to explore its landscape and befriend some of the planet’s more obscure residents. Taylor brings the story to life through a combination of laid-back, ‘70s-style tunes, accessible lyrics, and colorfully animated short films. Meanwhile, Loshak acts as business manager, booking agent, animation operator, and accountant—among other roles. Since Gustafer Yellowgold’s inception in 2005, Taylor and Loshak’s company, Apple-Eye Productions, has turned out three DVD/CD sets and played over 400 live shows in theaters, museums and bookstores across the globe—including opening performances for Wilco and The Polyphonic Spree. On a recent Tuesday morning, Taylor sat down with New York Family at Symphony Space—where he’s performed in the past—to share his thoughts about life as dad, musician and creator of the yellow mellow sensation.
You’ve been playing in rock bands since you were a teenager. How did you make the transition to kids’ music?
I’ve been in band after band for almost 24 years. When my last band started to dissolve, I knew I didn’t want to just start another one. I wanted to push myself into another direction that was a little bit more unusual or even just take a break from music altogether. I had recently moved to New York from Ohio—I’m from Dayton—and was writing a lot. I had a good creative outpouring, and I started writing some comical, funny songs just for fun on the side. I ended up accumulating all these character songs and realized I had accidentally created this whole fictitious world. I knew the songs were special in some way.
Is that how the character of Gustafer Yellowgold was born?
The songs were written in the first person, yet I knew they weren’t about me. I decided to base the songs on a character—or a doodle, really—that I had created when I was living back in Ohio. At first we thought about turning the concept into a book and CD, so I drew everything flat on paper. Then we started showing the book drawings to people and someone showed us how easy it was to make the drawings animated. We animated about eight songs, put out our first DVD and began touring. When you come to a show, you are watching the animation of Gustafer with the lyrics on screen while hearing a live musical performance. I perform the music myself or with a band.
Would you call Gustafer an alien?
No, he is not an alien, he is a solarian. Calling someone an alien, I think he may somehow find that offensive—like, you don’t call a chimpanzee a monkey.
Are Gustafer’s adventures based on your own personal experiences?
His characteristics and traits are kind of like an alter ego. It is sort of a fantasy existence—a conflict-free life of exploration and playing with the world. Gustafer has this sense of unconditional acceptance and innocence. The music is about joy and friendship. He has a set of eyes [that capture] an absurd worldview.
But I think if you go back and analyze some of the lyrics, you would see similarities between my life and Gustafer’s. The song “Sun Pod” on “Gustafer Yellowgold’s Mellow Fever” is about how Gustafer came to earth—he left home and said goodbye to his family and his dog and crashed down into a lake in Minnesota where he met the characters that would become his best friends. I didn’t move away from my hometown until I was 29, so I have a lot of deep relationships there with friends and family, which I’m still very attached to.
Where did the name Gustafer Yellowgold come from?
I wanted something that would conjure up fun, like Willy Wonka or Pink Panther. The name just kind of came out of thin air. Now the name references the entire [project]—the music, the art and the character.
Gustafer Yellowgold performances are popular with both adults and children. Why do you think that is?
When I’m writing, I always want to make the best music that I can. I don’t think because we’re doing a family show that there is a different standard. I didn’t really have kids’ music per se when I was growing up, but we had a huge record collection and most of it was soft rock from the early ‘70s. That’s sort of what I’m writing now. I call it soft rock for the whole family. The thing people say the most after they see a show is how different it is from other kids’ entertainment. I think the reason why we’ve been successful so far is because people can sense that there is no pretense. It is just a fun little world that you can get absorbed in with Gustafer.
How has your family influenced your work?
My wife Rachel is also a singer/songwriter. The first Gustafer Yellowgold show we ever played was in Korea when we were on tour for Rachel’s music. We showed the promoters a Gustafer video and they asked me to play during Rachel’s intermission. When we came home, I started playing in bookstores and venues on the Lower East Side. We started to get a nice reaction right away and thought, “This is fun and this is something we can do together,” so we put our heads together and created this [project]. Rachel organizes the business end and does all the tour management; I also run lyrics or animation ideas by her. Gustafer exists because of Rachel’s hard work and organization—without her this would just be a stack of unbound books in a bag in our kitchen.
How did you and Rachel first meet?
Rachel moved to New York from Suffolk, England in 1995. She was starting her career as a creative singer/songwriter on the Lower East Side. Then I came to town four years later and got a job as a sound engineer at a venue called the Living Room. Rachel came through on a regular basis, and I remember the first time I was very, very enchanted with her and her music. After one of her gigs she stayed around afterward, and to make a long story short, by 5 a.m. we were standing on the street corner kissing. We were together every day from then on.
Is Rachel still performing her music?
Gustafer has sort of taken over everything—which is cool because we are so busy—but Rachel has an album’s worth of songs she wants to put out, which will be her fifth. One of our goals is to put out Rachel’s before we put out the fifth Gustafer album [the fourth is scheduled to be released in 2011]. She is an amazing songwriter and singer—she sang backup for Norah Jones at the Grammys in 2003 and has sung backup for Moby for a couple of performances.
You both work from home. How do you manage to balance work and raising a toddler at the same time?
Most days we’ll split the day in half—Rachel will be with Harvey until lunch and then I’ll have him until dinner. We do need help once in a while and have found a really nice sitter who can take Harvey for a few hours a couple of times a week. We also go on tour a lot and try to insert little spontaneous family moments in while touring, like taking a day off together and going for a walk. Since we are all together so much, Rachel and I have really had a chance to see Harvey grow from just a little wide-eyed baby. [Our commitment] to the idea of family togetherness inspires us to make Gustafer Yellowgold even more of a success.
You recently moved from Brooklyn to The Catskills. How’s country life treating you?
We love it, it’s really gorgeous. When it’s a full moon, we say, “Where is that light coming from in the yard?” You can see the stars. Our lives are so crazy—we never have enough time—but up here it seems more slow and quiet. We made the move because we have been travelling so much for the past four years. We wanted to pay less money for a place we were gone from most of the time. With Harvey we also just wanted more space. It’s also a good place to be, creatively.
With two singer/songwriters for parents, Harvey must be exposed to a lot of music. Is he a musical child?
Harvey already sings and strums his tiny guitar. He’s seen over a hundred Gustafer shows—he saw his first one at 3 weeks. Rachel operates the animated video on stage, and for about a year Harvey would be up there with her in a pouch, sleeping through the shows. Then when he was about one he woke before the show and stuck his head out and yelled in the mike, and we said, ‘OK, time to put him in the audience.’
What’s his personality like?
He’s got a really good sense of humor. All of a sudden he has also started imitating me—down to my stage banter and sound effects. He will grab the guitar and sit and strum and you can tell which song he is trying to play. He also likes to cook with pots and pans. For a while he kept asking for water, which was one of his first words. And so we’d give him water because we thought it was cute—and then the kitchen floor would just be drenched. So we’ve had to say no water, so now he cooks necklaces and toys and things.
What’s next for Gustafer Yellowgold?
We’re working on a book, a fourth DVD and an off-Broadway stage show all based on the same concept called “Gustafer Yellowgold’s Infinity Sock.” There will be a bunch of new songs and characters. We’re aiming to release everything together in early 2011. In the meantime, we’ll continue to tour.