twink interview
(January 2003)

A PICTURE OF HOPPITY JONES PLAYING THE PIANO

There’s not exactly a glut of man/animal crossover rock. There was The Animals, of course, John Cougar Mellencamp, Billy Swan and The Boomtown Rats but none of them were really confused about their identity, none of them looked like a band fronted by an animal. Mike Batt was The Wombles but a Womble isn’t an animal as such and there have been records by Pinky and Perky, Roland Rat and other puppets, but no-one thinks they’re anything but puppets. Last year, Jim Avignon put out the Neoangin album ("a friendly dog in an unfriendly world") but that was under his own name about the cartoon dog. Which brings us to Twink. An album of what could be children’s music, on toy instruments, with a storybook, by a rabbit. Or is it Mike Langlie?

One thing I need to sort out first? Who is Twink? Is it you, the rabbit, or the band?

Twink is the name for the overall project. It's sort of like a band, but I'm the only fixed member. Different folks contribute their musical talents on a song-by-song basis. There are a couple of people whom I would like to deputize as full-fledged band members, but they have their own projects that they're very much tied to.

So what's the rabbit called?

The rabbit in the book was nameless for a while, but people assume he's called Hoppity Jones (for the first track on the disc), so that name stuck. Hoppity Jones is actually a nick-name for one of my cats. She's pretty calm most of the time, but has these occasional freak-outs where she hops around in circles.

Would you be offended if I described your record as a concept album?

It's definitely a concept record. I guess the idea is to take the listener on a musical journey through the various moods and bizarre places that I could push what is usually seen as a very limited-range instrument. The rabbit's story in the book reflects that...sometimes fun, sometimes scary. In fact, the one complaint I get the most is that the disc and the book don't follow each other more literally.

Can there be a follow-up to a concept album?

I think I have a lot left to express through toy pianos. The first album was kind of like my introductory handshake with them! A follow-up with another picture-book is in the works, as are a "metal" EP, and a collaboration with the electronic kiddie music artist PlaySoundz (http://www.geocities.com/playsoundz/). A bunch of compilation CDs are also coming out in 2003 with new Twink tracks, so I'm keeping pretty busy.

Is it a kids record?

It's also sort of a kid's record, in that it's playful and whimsical, but I also tried to express the wide emotional spectrum that children have. Most of the bland children's music I hear being made these days seems to ignore how complex kids really are. I wanted the album to be something that anyone could enjoy, so the tunes are instrumental and the book is wordless.

Have you had any feedback from children? Have you played it to any children?

The feedback from people has been good overall, but I'm especially happy with the response the album gets from children. Friends and family members have told me that their kids will bang along on their own toys when the disc is on! Their parents must hate me. :)

HOPPITY JONES

Why make it with toy instruments?

For years I played keyboards in bands, always trying to do something different than what other gourps around us were doing at the time. After a while I got kind of disenchanted with the music scene, and didn't feel like I was covering any new ground. One day a few years ago I was working on an already frustrating project, when my equipment quit on me. I was about to throw in the towel, and started goofing around on a toy piano I'd found to get my mind off things. The more I played with it the more fun I had, something I was missing in making music. I've now got a huge collection of toy instruments, and they're really fun to play! I'm constantly surprised by the things I can do with them.

Did you actually play all the instruments together as a band, or did you stitch it all together on the computer from samples of the instruments?

Ahh, the magic of multi-tracking! I admit to being a poor musician, especially when fumbling with tiny piano keys. Recording a track that I'm happy with takes forever. Most of the songs on the disc are stitched together from countless takes and tracks. I've also made a bank of sampled toys and funny noises to use for making rhythm tracks. Most of the guests on the album mailed their parts to me. The downside to using all this technology is that I still haven't found a way to translate it into a live set-up that I'm satisfied with. I'm starting to think of ways to focus more on an entertaining performance (like a puppet show or something) rather than spend too much effort replicating every note live.

I like the idea of a puppet show. Would it tell the story from the book?

Probably, with some surprises thrown in. I'd like to choreograph something that lets live players, puppets and animation work off each other to present a single story. A woman from New Orleans named Miss Pussycat has a fun, musical puppet show that I find inspiring.

It's interesting to me that the melodies on the record sound like they could have been played on toys, but the rhythms often don't. Did you use toy drum kits?

Only a few of the album tracks feature real percussion It's mostly electronic, for two reasons: 1) I've always liked the sound of drum machines, and 2) the drummers I invited to collaborate never came through! I'm happy with how the interaction of simple instruments and programmed beats came out, some reviewers called it techno for the Playskool set. Still hoping for more weird percussion players to help out though!

What's the best instrument you’ve got?

As far as toy pianos go, I've found Jaymar and Schoenhut to be the best. Even the beat-up models from the 1950s that I have sound beautiful. Most of my collection consist of little, weird-name brands, that aren't really very useful musically, but I play a few notes from them here and there for variety. Stay away from Kleinways...they look like gorgeous little grand pianos, but all the ones I've tried sound like old buckets.

One of my favorite things is called a pling plong, which I ordered from France. It looks like the guts of a music box, and it works like a tiny player piano. You write music for it by punching holes into a long paper card, then running it through the device by turning a crank to trigger the tines.

Right now I'm getting a lot of cheap electronic toy instruments. They're quite cute...big colorful keys, animal head buttons, huge drum pads. They're not all great, but some have terrific sounds and effects. I'll be incorporating more of these into future releases, and hopefully circuit-bending a few.

How about the story book? Was that developed at the same time/before/after?

My creative time is spent equally between music and illustration/design, so Twink is a really satisfying project. I love unique packaging, and I wanted to release an album that would really get people's attention. The beauty of releasing both a CD and picture book was that if I got tired of working on one, I could switch gears and work on the other. Developing both simultaneously helped me figure out the order of the tracks, to sort of match the flow of the book.

Was that a decision you made - not to try and tie them together more?

I'm pretty familiar with the music made by the folks that contributed, so certain songs were written with them in mind. Many of the finished pieces were surprising to me though. A few people that intended to collaborate never found the time to finish their tracks, so hopefully I can get them to climb aboard next time.

The book illustrations had to be carefully planned ahead of time, to create a story with proper flow, and to keep to a set number of pages. Writing the music was just the opposite, I wanted to retain a high degree of surprise and "happy accidents" while I figured out what to do with my new instruments. Most tunes mutated into something far different from what I expected. Once I had whittled down the number of tunes to include, the challenge was to create a track order that seemed to best reflect the dynamics of the book.

I see you did the artwork for Printed Circuit's album "The Adventure Game." Have you done others?

The Printed Circuit package was a great gig! Claire saw one of my sites (www.yipyop.com) and asked me to design something that would compliment her music. I'm a big fan of hers, so I jumped at the chance. My free time is pretty slim, so I only take on projects I'm going to really enjoy and believe in. Some of the other bands I've done work for are Plastic Nebraska (www.plasticnebraska.com) and Sinkcharmer (www.sinkcharmer.com), both good friends of mine.

Have you made other records?

My older bands have released demos and been on CD compilations, and I've released solo stuff under aliases, but I'm most proud of Twink by far. There's a bunch of compilations coming out in 2003 with new Twink tunes, and I'll be posting news about them on my site as they're released.

mike@twink.net www.dydpepsidisc.com www.twink.net c/o Mike Langlie, 55 Bartlett Ave, Belmont, MA 02478, USA

[An edit of this interview previously appeared in Careless Talk Costs Lives]


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