Interview: Kyle Morton of Typhoon
Like everyone else who loves music, I sometimes despair that it has all been done before. I get bored and frustrated by the lack of creativity that characterizes the pop form. I pull out my old records. I long for the days when a song could make my skin tingle and my hair stand on end. Lord help me then, because I’m trapped in one of my inevitable nostalgia trips, and that brand of fun is always fleeting. I suspect that most of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
But then it always happens. I encounter an album that reminds me of exactly why I expend so much of my psychic energy listening and writing about this stuff. That is what happened when I first heard Typhoon’s Hunger and Thirst. I wasn’t 90 seconds into the record before I realized I was sitting on the edge of my seat. The adjective that springs immediately to mind is “riveting.”
If you haven’t heard of Typhoon or its intrepid leader Kyle Morton, don’t feel bad. The band has come percolating up out of the Portland, Oregon house-party scene, so unless you hail from those particular environs, the group is a mystery. I suppose it is that mystery that contributes to my fascination with a record that, to my mind, has more “wow” moments than just about any I’ve heard this year. In hopes of filling in some of the blanks and answering some of the lingering questions about this elusive bunch, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kyle Morton recently and trying to understand Typhoon’s creative process.
My usual MO for these interviews is to get online and dig up as much information as I can about the bands we’re going to feature.
(laughter)Well, usually it is, except that it seems you guys have assiduously cultivated your anonymity. All the blog sites that mention you guys, well…you’re almost like mythological beasts.
So I’ll start by asking — is that a conscious thing? You guys have been around for about five years — have you wanted to fly under the radar so you can do what you do, or has it just worked out that way?
It’s kind of both. I can’t claim that it’s all been intentional. A lot of it is [a result of] the outlets we’ve played in — we really love house shows, and our fans are really at the grass-roots, do-it-yourself level. And I guess it fit well with our music. We weren’t doing anything that we thought could even really be commercial. So it kind of worked out that way. I guess this recent interest in us is kind of crazy, but at the same time we weren’t going out of our way not to get noticed either. At this point it’s just falling into our laps. I think we’re ready.
I think it’s kind of cool to have that air of mystery around you. But damn, just finding out who plays in the band is hard. (laughter) When you have that many members, the logistics must be killer.
Definitely. You have your work cut out for you. And so do I. It is a really big group, and it always has been. I think the smallest we’ve ever been is like seven or eight.
Well, then, walk me through the history of how this got started and how you all got together.
Sure. The way it sort of happened was — well, we sort of have this long history. I met Toby Tanabe and Casey O’Brien when we were 13 in middle school. We had a band when we were in high school where we met Tyler Ferrin. He’s still in the band. Playing around our hometown, Salem, Oregon, is where we met a lot of the people who would end up joining Typhoon. We met a lot of friends who were in bands and what happened, really, is that we just absorbed each other. Typhoon started out to be this recording project that I wanted to do and bring in all these musical friends I’ve met in Salem. That was the year after I graduated high school, so around 2004 or 2005.
Is that where the name came from then? The recording project?
We were in Japan — Tyler, Toby, and myself. Tyler and Toby were going to school there for awhile and I was visiting. And there was this night we met up with one of Toby’s parent’s friends who took us out drinking. It was during this typhoon in Japan. We weren’t experiencing it, but it was happening. This friend we were with said something kind of sage-like about that and we decided to use the word “typhoon” as the working title of this recording project.
So most of you ended up in Portland?
In Portland, yeah. I came back from Japan and moved to Portland to go to college. I started writing and we came out with our first album at the end of 2005. I started writing that stuff about a year earlier. We recorded it with Devin Gallagher and Dave Hall, my sister Paige Morton [violin], our other friend Jordan Bagnall [accordion, keyboards], Conlan Murphy [banjo, guitar, percussion] — I’m trying to remember everyone–
Sorry, I don’t mean to put you on the spot.
(laughter) No, no, no, I think that is basically what we started with…oh, our friend Leah, Leah Ng [vocals]. That was the original lineup for Typhoon. I moved to Portland in 2005 and about a year later all of my friends moved up to Portland as well.
Is this the infamous Victorian house I keep reading about?
Ah, no, not yet. That’s coming — but definitely a lot of the same roommates. We played in Portland — all that stuff you’ve been reading, it is probably about the last five years in Portland. The membership has expanded and contracted over that period. Sort of a process of attrition I guess. Most of the original members are still there.
I want to talk about your creative process, but first, if you don’t mind, I’d like to run one of my hair-brained theories by you and see what you think.
Your music is obviously a collective enterprise. There is a sense of family in your sounds. I think that comes off in the few videos that are up on YouTube. Maybe the more appropriate word is “tribal.” There’s a tribal quality to what you’re doing–
(laughter) I definitely think that is true…
Are there certain bands that provided you inspiration or even a model for what you started to do, or did this begin more organically from being with one another for so long and playing music over that period?
Well, we have certainly been influenced by a lot of bands, but not necessarily in the “tribal” sense. In fact, we were already a band when I first of heard of, say, Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire, or any of these bands we are compared to a lot. A lot of the bands we all like are a lot smaller. In that sense, I think, it really did grow organically. We’d be playing and someone would say, “Hey, we have a friend who can play this instrument,” and we’d just go from there. It seemed like we had all this potential to do some interesting things, and I didn’t want to leave anybody out of it. The more the merrier.
I think it is probably inevitable that you guys get compared to Broken Social Scene, but it doesn’t quite work to me; you guys are in a very different…space.
I agree. I’ve always felt that comparison was pretty superficial.
They aren’t listening hard enough.
So you’re obviously very inclusive in your approach to music. But how do you write a song? Are you the creative force, or does everybody take turns?
I write most of the songs now. I’ve always written at least the structures of the songs — and the lyrics. We have had other songs from other people in the band, but most have side projects outside of Typhoon. To me, it’s not so much a control issue but more just to make it work. Given how many people we have in the band, if you just open things up it can turn into a mess, which it has before. So I write the songs and I bring everybody in and then everybody has a huge hand in helping to make them into what they become.
Hunger and Thirst took you how long to record? From when you started to when you had the completed album?
The recording process was only three or four months, although it was pretty grueling because we recorded every day after I got off work. The songwriting kind of took place over a few years. Some songs were finished as we recorded.
So do you record live? How did the process in the studio work?
We would have really liked to record live. In the past, on the first primitive recordings we’ve done before, we haven’t had any live elements. It is all just kind of layering. We have been trying to get away from that. There’s something really cool about recording live, something that happens acoustically that you can’t capture by layering things. The problem with this album is that we didn’t have the resources to record live and do it well. So sections of it are live. All the drums are live. All the guitars and basses are live together. There is a little layering, but the foundational stuff is live. All the horns are recorded together and so are the strings. We did want it to sound as live as possible, and on our next album we want to go further in that direction.
Your producer, Paul Laxer, really did a nice job with the record. There’s a nice warm sound on here.
Yeah, he really did his homework on how to make it sound like it did. He would talk about these other records that he really liked. He referenced a lot of the reverb stuff that’s on Grizzly Bear’s new album. And also Fleet Foxes. It was interesting from that perspective — I mean, I love music, and I’ve been playing it a long time, but I’m not necessarily an audiophile…and Paul is. He listened to those records for their sound engineering. It’s cool; it was good to have that. We’ve never had that before. You asked earlier why we’ve been off the radar — partly it is because recording hasn’t really been that big of a priority in the past.
I’m not much of an audiophile either, although you probably wouldn’t know it after that line of questioning. But the thing that blows me away about this record is that there’s no filler on it. Everything fits together; each song creates its own little universe. I am kind of struck by how — I mean, I don’t know what your first record sounded like. In fact, until you mentioned it I didn’t know there was another album.
Yeah, that album doesn’t really exist anywhere besides our hometown. It’s kind of underground; people here in the indie scene have it.
So maybe you can imagine my surprise when I get this album in my email and I listen to it and there’s this perfectly realized musical world there. I was like, “Wow, if this is the first album from these guys, what the hell is going on in Portland? I’ve got to get out there and check this out.”
(laughter) Well, thank you. Those are really kind words.
Word of mouth is a pretty effective — I mean, I was thinking about this — there are a lot of bands — hell, a lot of Portland bands — that seem to have the knack for getting themselves on every commercial and every video game that comes down the pike.
Man, that’s so true. (laughter)
But there’s something to be said for cultivating a little mystery. Word of mouth has certainly piqued the interest of the good folks on the West Coast, but what about the rest of us? You just had your first tour outside of the region?
Yeah, it was really great. All of us kind of grew up fans of Yann Tierson. When we got asked to tour with him we all kind of spazzed out for a minute. Luckily, none of us had to quit our jobs, but we were ready to. It was really last minute; it was amazing. We got a really great response everywhere we went. Yann and his band were amazing.
You basically went from Oregon to Texas?
Yeah: Oregon, California, Arizona, and Texas.
What are the future prospects?
Actually, we are now in the process of finding a national booking agent and figuring out a tour for this summer. That will really depend on how well the album is received once it’s out. That is basically what our team is telling me.
How many of you actually hit the road this time?
The whole live band as it is currently configured, which isn’t the same as the one on the album. I was really happy about it — I didn’t really think everyone would be able to make it but they did, so we’ll try to do it again this summer. It’s crazy trying to do this with such a big group, but it’s a lot of fun, too. Maybe I can mention some of the other people who are in the band?
Oh sure, let it rip.
Alex Fitch and Pieter Hilton are playing drums. Ryan McAlpert and Eric Stipe are on horns. Shannon Steale and Jen Hufnagel are on violin, and Nora Zimmerly sings and does percussion. I think that’s everybody.
Very cool. Can we take just a few seconds to talk about your songs? I think one of the cool things about the record is that many of the lyrics are introspective, a little dark, but your music is expansive. It is hopeful. I’m wondering if you would talk about the tension in your work. To my ear it is pretty well-defined.
Sure, thank you. That tension is a good place to start, whether it is intentional or not. Some things on the album were intentional. I don’t know if you noticed, but some of the songs are in pairs. The first two songs flow together almost as if they are part one and part two of the same song. Usually it starts with something kind of nice with major chords, but then it gets smashed by something more violent or dissonant. I guess that’s where I feel I’ve been influenced by David Lynch films, where there is this nice surface world, but underneath it is dark and disturbing.
You even have an intermission. I guess that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to what I perceived to be the holistic quality of the record. It is almost a suite in the sense there are these connections. But each song does stand alone in its own right.
Right, cool, I’m glad you think so. I do too. You’re right, but the songs were conceived in sequences together before they were written as whole songs. So I had the idea for the album in its entirety before the songs were completely fleshed out. But it is like a suite — or, at least, there are movements.
That’s interesting. So you mean you had the album figured out thematically in your head before you had the songs themselves?
Yeah, I guess I was sort of writing these songs in little snippets, and a lot of times — for instance, “CPR-Claws Pt. 2” — that is actually a combination of different songs that I realized when I got down to it all belonged together rather than separate. It was more a matter of coming up with a suitable arrangement. Conveniently — and I’d like to think it is intentional, but I’m not sure — the lyrical themes of the record fit pretty well with the structural themes.
Is this how you’ve always worked? I’m struck by formalism of your approach. It is like you’re almost writing a novel. You have certain scenes–
That have to be sewn together. Exactly. That’s a good way to describe it for me. I really do think the form of the album was influenced by novels and literary influences.
So who do you read?
Nabokov and the way he played with structure and form was definitely an influence. Not to compare myself. (laughter) But also film. Fellini’s 8 ½ was structured in a way that I wanted to make this record. Self-referential. Structurally conscious.
The good news is I think that formalism in the work is subverted by the tension we spoke of earlier between the music and the words.
Once you have this vision in your mind, the band hangs the appendages on the structure?
Definitely, in a way. I have ideas about how I think things should sound. But we’ll start jamming on sections and people start figuring things out. A lot of times we have to actually reduce it down, for instance, if we’ve been jamming on something for 30 minutes. But it all works out.
It sure did on Hunger and Thirst. Congratulations, and thanks for the conversation.
My pleasure, Mark, thank you for your interest.