Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Loaded Questions Interview: Ty Stoller and The Monkey Jungle by contributor Blake Watson

This interview with author and musician Ty Stoller is conducted by Loaded Questions contributor Blake Watson. Click here to visit Blake's blog, The Bit Maelstrom.

Ty Stoller is one of those people who makes the relatively mundane tasks of your day more interesting. He's the service person who's going to talk to you when you're in line--or he's the guy on the street with the jumper cables just when you need them. He's one of those people, in other words, who makes the big city seem a little more homey. When he told me he was putting together an album of songs for kids, I thought, "Well, that just sort of makes sense."

The Flower loved the album; this suggested to me that Ty was on to something. I've linked to the MP3 samples in the interview, but if you prefer WMV or WAVs you can go directly to the song page on the official website. As mentioned, The reggae-style "Clean-Up Song" is the most popular of the album, though I admit a certain fondness for the folk/country-style "Simple Eyes".

Blake: What is your background in the arts?

Ty Stoller: I was trained at the California Institute of the Arts, a school built by Walt Disney. It's like the Julliard of the West Coast. I've done lots of theatre in the Los Angeles area. Including lot's of children's theatre!

Blake: When did you get the idea to do a children's CD?

TS: The title track song The Monkey Jungle was the first song that I wrote. I would always sing it to guests when they would be over at my house late at night. I always knew that I wanted to put other children's songs with the title-track because of the feedback I was getting. Then eventually my son was born, and that help inspire momentum to complete the project.

Blake: The music and themes of The Monkey Jungle resonate strongly with the pre-school set, to where it made me wonder if you had spent a lot of time around kids that age. What's the story there?

TS: Well like I said, I've done a lot of children's theatre. Some of the plays that I was in would really interact with the kids. The kids would even get on stage with the actors, which was always funny and cool. Also, for years I've been emceeing corporate picnics where I would have to wrangle up 20 to 800 kids. I think doing those events every weekend for years has helped me develop intuitive skills with children. Come to think of it, after keeping 800 kids under control and entertained, I should probably open up my own pre-school, or after-school-program.

Blake: The picture book/sing-a-long acts as a pretty good read-a-long for young readers. Serendipity or was that part of the master plan?

TS: It was part of the master plan. I wanted to have a book that could stand on its own if the CD player wasn't readily available. So the goal was to have three different uses for the "Monkey Jungle". A child could read the book. Play the cd. Or do both.

Blake: Although you named the album after the song The Monkey Jungle, you draw from a broader palette of subjects: Stonehenge, piñatas, etc. Did these come from things you did with your own children or did you start from scratch?

TS: I started from scratch. Songs would just come to me, and if I liked the melodies, I would add them to the play list.

The song, Tic-Toc, I remember writing in my head while I was driving on the freeway to one of those corporate picnics that I was talking about. This clock, in my head, kept going 'tic-toc, tic-toc'. I don't even believe I was running late or anything.

Stonehenge (Rock Song) is kind of a tribute to this very cool rock that I found on a secluded California beach years ago. It was like finding an enormous diamond! For awhile, I wouldn't have sold that rock for a million dollars, literally without a doubt. Now days I doubt I would pass on a million dollars, even five thousand, but I would like to think that I would never sell it. It's shaped like a heart. Very special. Besides, who would buy it?

I usually pass the rock around for kids to see it at live shows, but as the venues get larger with these children festivals, and commotion whirlwinds around, I don't know if I will continue to do that. But maybe that would be the magical test of my rock, to see it comes back to me..

Other songs like The Piñata Song (Coronada Piñata) I've done a lot events with piñatas. And it's actually a pretty dangerous activity. That's why I threw in that line, "A dangerous game, piñata. Piñata, Piñata we're going to smash it up!" I guess if you only do piñata once a year at a birthday party, you're border-line okay on the danger factor.

But I don't know how the catering company that I work for does piñata Saturday and Sunday, week after week, year after year. You're just inviting yourself for a lawsuit. Thank the Universe, that no children have gotten seriously injured.

Blake: Yeah, we've whacked a few kids at our parties over the years. They love the piñata, but they dang things are constructed to withstand small explosives. Sure enough, one of the older kids will start swinging like a caveman and one of the younger ones will try to get close enough to be the first into the candy. But no serious injuries so far.

TS: There's been some pretty close calls though, with that swinging stick while kids run frantically for the candy; where your stomach drops, and the crowd goes, "Whoa!" One time an entire branch fell off of this enormous tree that we were using for the rope. Somehow, it grazed the top of this kid's head, instead of a direct hit. Luckily, his mother was a nurse, and knew exactly what to do. That was the only serious moment that I can think of over all the years, so maybe I'm just being a little paranoid on the dangers of the game, but I wonder if anyone like the CDC is actually keeping track of all of the piñata accidents. After the branch incident, I just walk away now, and let the clowns at the parties do the piñata with the parents helping out, and then I just hope that all the kids return for my next activity.

For the Z, Y, X song, I've always wanted to learn the alphabet backwards. Maybe a study will show that kids, who know the alphabet forward and backwards succeed further in life

I wanted to write a song about diversity, because even though we all look different were still pretty much physically the same inside. We're all human beings! Coloring in the People addresses that.

Being balanced I thought would be a good song to teach to kids with the song Balance.

For The Clean-Up Song, which is actually the biggest hit song of the album so far on iTunes, I was folding my laundry at the time when that melody came to me. I guess its popularity signals, that parents can always use some help getting their children to clean up those messy rooms.

The song Simple Eyes I think came along when my wife was pregnant; and how excited we were anticipating our first child to be born.

Blake: What's been the reaction among kids you've played the album for? Have you
done any of it live?

TS: The reaction has been great! I think the album is geared for 4 to 9 year olds, even though my son loved it at two. It's definitely an album that can grow with your child. I've done a few live shows now, and it's hard to gauge if the kids are into it because I'm just trying to get through the songs and not suck. But my feedback from parents, weeks after a show passed, has been great. Many parents have told me how my cd is not taken out of their cd players for days at a time. I need at least 500,000 more families to feel that way.

Blake: Here's hoping! Your production lists a fair number of people: Were these people you've
known for a while or did you have to seek some of them out?

TS: Every person that is related to this project, I had to seek them out. The biggest hassles were, finding an illustrator, and finding the children back-up singers. Also it was a hassle to find where to print-up the book portion of the cd, locally in Los Angeles. All of the printing companies for books, were either back-east, or overseas, like China.

Blake: Yeah, I wondered about the children backup singers: How was it recording with them?

TS: The kids were great. Only one kid was a real pain in the you know what. He kept wanting to touch all of this really expensive recording equipment. And it wasn't a sweet-curiosity kind-of-thing. It came from some kind of destructive center.

But I tried to just see him as an energetic seven year old that didn't understand the true value of the equipment he was surrounded by. I finally had to tell him to sit in a chair. Of course he had to be the one kid in which the mother didn't stay with us, so she could run and do errands while we recorded.

We got done recording the kids stuff an hour early, and all the other kids had left, and here was this bored kid sitting in this chair, and I felt bad that we couldn't play with him, but when you're in the recording studio, the meter is ticking and you have to keep moving on. I've seen that kid a bunch of times after the recordings, and he always runs up and gives me a hug. I really think he enjoyed being a part of the project, but you would have never guessed it on that day.

Two of the girls that I found through this performing arts center for kids, which that is where I'll go initially next time around, but I didn't find out about this center until the album was almost completed, these two girls were so professional and talented. Huge difference from the kids that weren't exposed to the entertainment biz.

Blake: How has it been working with iTunes? I would think it would tell you something about what was popular.

TS: iTunes is amazing! They truly level the playing field for independent artist. The most popular song for the album on iTunes is "The Clean-Up Song". Eventually, I think it will be the title-track song for "Monkey Jungle" because that is the song that parents have told me that their children like the most.

Blake: You conceived, composed, produced and distributed an album, took it from start to finish, leveraging a lot of modern technology on the way. Did the popularization of services like iTunes and Lulu encourage you to undertake this project, or was it something you discovered as part of the process?

TS: It was something that I discovered as part of the process. I'm truly grateful for sites like iTunes, CdBaby, and Amazon. Years ago "Monkey Jungle" would have never been made without going through a major record label. Now it has national exposure, and is side by side albums like the "Jungle Book", and other major children recording artist, thanks to sites like iTunes.

It's been a lot of work when I look back at it. And unfortunately the art-side has been long gone, as it becomes all about money with the distribution and marketing of the album. I'm trying to remind myself to enjoy every step of the way. Right now I have the financial hat on. That's the stage that I'm at right now. So, I can see how being with a record label is very appealing to artist, so you can just create and be concerned about the music. However, there is something very rewarding with doing everything on your own, and being able to control which way the project is going to be put together. I wasn't going to shop this around town through the agent channels to have everyone say 'NO' to me. So I just went and did it myself, because I had to get these songs out there. I've had a lot of great, experienced people help me out along the way, and we're still just in the beginning middle of it.

Blake: What's next for you?

TS: I want to do a second album, but right now I'm too engrossed in getting "Monkey Jungle" to take off. It may just be a gradual take-off, instead of a rocket-style-lift-off, actually it's more like climbing steps of a huge high-rise. I've been expanding my guitar skills by taking lessons, so that will probably inspire new songs. But for now "Monkey Jungle" has to just break even, or that's it for me folks! Hopefully, there's many more albums within me. I'm kind of itching to do an adult album of rock songs..I have some live children's shows coming up. So, we'll see what happens from here. People can get the latest up-date information at:

Blake: Thanks, Ty! We wish you the best of luck!


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