Twink: Making Serious Music with Toy Instruments

On making music with toy pianos: “I’m pretty sincere about my music, and I don’t go into it trying to make it sound jokey or outright kitschy.  I think that’s just a byproduct of the sound of the instruments and the general cheerful tone of [them].”

Mike Langlie, known as Twink to toy music aficionados, turned to the toy piano when he burnt out on the conventional music scene.  Seven albums later, he is still exploring new ways to coax his signature style of complex music from a relatively simple instrument.

Yours isn’t exactly the kind of music that you can just sit around and listen to.  How do you anticipate your listeners to experience your music?

It’s always a surprise to hear how people come across it and consume it.  As you can probably guess, I get a lot of email from people saying that their kids love it, and that seems to be the natural audience.  They like to jump around and bang on things and create crazy dances for it. I’ve heard from a bunch of people that have asked to use it for performance art and dance pieces. So, I get the impression that – like you said – it’s not really a passive thing.  Just by the nature of it, it’s more of an active experience. And people have said it’s helped keep them awake on drives too.  For good or bad.

Are you making this music for kids, or for adults?  Or is there a difference?

When I set out doing toy piano music, it was in a response to becoming really jaded to the music scene in general.  I was not feeling like I was doing anything new or productive or inspired.  And when I started exploring the toy instruments, I realized pretty quickly that there was going to be a high kitsch factor.  Around that time, it seemed like there was a lot of people in the art world that were doing very kitschy things with a devilish undertone that was meant to upturn everything they were parodying, like Little Golden Books, Richard Scarry, Sesame Street, Hello Kitty, things like that.  And I knew if I followed that path, I was going to really limit myself. I wasn’t really interested in taking an ironic or cynical approach.  So I decided to make it all-ages friendly.  It’s not necessarily kids’ music per se, but I realized from the sound of it, it was going to attract them, and I didn’t want to have angry parents sending me emails.

For those who aren’t familiar with toy-driven music, who are the notables in the genre?

It really does seem to be a growing trend in the last decade or so.  My direct influences getting into it, that I discovered as I was starting to record my own stuff, were people like Pianosaurus – who put out a great album of toy alt-rock in 1987.  And they’re famous for destroying their instruments after every show.  Margaret Leng Tan is probably the most famous.  She’s well known in both the classical and avant-garde piano worlds.  She was a protégé of John Cage late in his life, and has been called ‘The Queen of Toy Piano’ by the press.  So, since I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried to track down as many like-minded people and resources as I can.

It seems like there’s a lot of love for the toy piano in France.  Yann Tiersen is a composer, probably most famous for doing the Amélie soundtrack.  Another guy is Pascal Comelade, and there are French bands like Klimperei and Chapi Chapo who do really whimsical instrumental music, much more pure toy music than what I’m doing.

Are they the reason you got into the toy piano, specifically?

I actually discovered a lot of these people well into it.  They seem to be popping up more and more.  There’s a Canadian group of people who have done the Music for Toys festival and CD compilation for the past few years.  Phyllis Chen is a young avant-garde and classical pianist, following in the footsteps of Margaret Leng Tan, and she formed a yearly festival called the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition, where they put a call out for people to write new pieces for toy piano for musicians with all kinds of backgrounds to perform.

What really got me into it was just that it was different than anything I’d ever heard before.  I liked the sound of it, and I really appreciated the limitations that it offered, especially coming from an electronic music background.  It was nice to focus on melody and simple tunes, instead of having millions of options in front of me that were distracting me from getting any music made most of the time.

Can you tell me a little bit about composing a song?  What special equipment you have to use in your recording process?

Starting out, it was pretty much just a solo thing – and intended as such:  just a fun, pure musical outlet of expression.  I didn’t intend it to be for performance or recording, even at the beginning. I just wanted to do some musical doodling, so to speak.  And I also have a big collection of Casio keyboards from when I was a kid and a bunch of other silly electronic musical instruments.  So they became my accompaniment – a toy backing band.

On transitioning from electronic music: “It was nice to focus on melody and simple tunes, instead of having millions of options in front of me that were distracting me from getting any music made most of the time.”

My process then is pretty much as it is now.  I will pick up a toy piano – as you can imagine I’ve got a ton of them by now, probably about three dozen.  And all of them have their own personalities or quirks.  I get a lot off of eBay or thrift stores.  They find their way into the house, to my wife’s chagrin most of the time.  Some are missing notes, a lot of them have their own idea as to what’s in-tune or not.  When I’m writing a new song or melody, it really takes on the character of the actual instrument I’m using.  And then I’ll just start filling things in with electronic beats and flourishes.

So, through my discography, I’ve tried experimenting with directions I can take it.  I’ve done a number of collaborations with different people that I either know or am a fan of and was delighted to, most of the time, get positive reactions from people who wanted to try experimenting and letting loose a little bit themselves.

How do you re-create the effect of this live?

It’s definitely a studio construction – or bedroom studio construction. I haven’t figured out how to do a satisfying live show yet, especially with my work schedule.  Based on the character of each toy piano and being really limited – sometimes a single melody line will be pieced together from several toy pianos, just to meet the required number of notes that I want for a song.  So, for the next album, I’m hoping to strip out the electronics a bit, trying to get a little ensemble together and focus on something that might actually be able to be played live.  I’ve gotten so many requests for it that it kills me every time I have to turn one down.  It seems like I can spend my time either recording stuff, or figuring out how to do something live.  And I’ve just been trying to create as much as possible and having fun in the studio.  So I’m hoping to explore the other side of it soon.

How do you get yourself taken seriously – or do you care about being taken seriously?

I certainly didn’t expect anyone to take it seriously.  I certainly don’t take it seriously most of the time.  If I did, I would fall prey to my critics too easily.  As much as I said I get email from people that enjoy it and are encouraging, I get plenty of email and see forum posts from people that think ‘the bunny should be shot,’ so to speak. I have no delusions about ever making a career out of this.  Anytime anyone responds well to it, it’s just gravy for me and encouragement more than anything else.

But at the same time, I am pretty sincere about my music, and I don’t go into it trying to make it sound jokey or outright kitschy.  I think that’s just a byproduct of the sound of the instruments and just the general cheerful tone of it.  I’m seriously an ex-Goth at heart and still have a strong tie to that world and the Boston Goth scene in general.  Fortunately, they haven’t asked me for my black eyeliner yet.  The perky Goths seem to get where I’m coming from more than anyone else…I think.

Do you have plans to experiment with any other genres or instruments?

I think my name is pretty well-tied to Twink and toy instruments for now.  I’m still getting a lot out of the project, and I still feel like there’s a lot more to explore with it.  It was a surprise to discover that when you’ve got a gimmick – and I’m not going to deny that that’s what the toy piano is – it allows you to explore all different kinds of directions, genres and moods, while still maintaining a unifying element and a signature sound.  More so than a rock band trying to explore something new, like Nickelback and their soon-to-be released dubstep disaster.

I think you might alienate some Nickelback fans with that comment.

I will gladly pay that price.

www.twink.net

Photos by Karen Langlie

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