Music for Serious Midgets
The Wonderfully Obsessive World of Timothy Sellers’ Artichoke
Lisa Carver, “Los Angeles Weekly”, October 7, 2010
Artichoke makes music for kids and drunks. Poppy melodies and seemingly innocent lyrics about bees and scientists and your neighborhood (Highland Park in their case), but which take on a darker subtext the older and more jaded you get.
Head Artichoke Timothy Sellers’ dad returned from Vietnam in 1972 and decided to leave society, so Timothy grew up in the woods in upstate New York with no running water, electricity or TV. He turned out weird.
He moved to L.A., married another artist, and paints and sings and obsesses for a living. You can go see for yourself when Artichoke performs Saturday at the Eagle Rock Music Festival.
LISA CARVER: Hi!
TIMOTHY SELLERS: Hello?
Am I on speakerphone? There’s a bit of a delay.
No. That’s just how I talk.
You said your stuff isn’t all kids music, but I find it innocent, obsessive, gentle and cabalistic, which is what a kid’s world is. And I’m suspicious of adults who speak directly to children. You don’t understand children once you’re no longer one of them. Adults and children are different species, I feel.
I think you may have little flashes of remembering what it was, but yeah, you’ve pretty much moved on.
But do you feel like a child?
Hahaha. Uh … I don’t think so. I do think that being an artist means you remain open, and artistically open may overlap with kid open.
Do you consider Metallica artists?
Hahaha! Where did that question come from? Do you mean are they all … open to the universe? Well, there’s a lot of craft, too — they have some amazing skills. I don’t know if they’re more open than the average person. They’re louder.
I read that you grew up without electricity or running water. I was thinking about how back when we were an agricultural society, there was no concept of children. There were babies and there were normal adults and then there were these short adults. In paintings, children were portrayed as these very serious midgets.
That’s true. I was going to mention that.
You were going to mention that? Why?
Well, based on the first half of your sentence. The psychology that they were just not completed adults was reflected in the paintings.
Do you feel European?
I don’t feel that American — I grew up without a TV, but I’ve been to Europe and I don’t feel like one of those guys, either. My mom was born in Kashmir of English parents. She grew up in India and Greece and all over. Her father was in the U.N. And I grew up in the woods and kind of invented my own thing, my own culture.
Are you psychedelic?
I’m not a drug doer. But I am interested in feeling kind of warm, having intense experiences.
Simplistic lyrics are a Rorschach test. Your song “Beaver” goes: “I’ve got a spanking new pet and she likes her environment wet.” I picture a submissive in a submersion isolation tank in your basement. You can do that on just about all the songs. Are you aware of that?
Yeah. It’s really fun for me. A lot of musicians hide behind the “Whatever you think it means, it means” approach. But I think it’s better to have something that it does mean on one level as manifest content, leading content. Kind of like in dreams. “Beaver” is overtly about making beavers pets, giving them a home in your apartment, instead of the humans making homes for themselves in beavers’ territory, nature. And the beaver pets get a little too excited and take over your environment. The naughty subtext might emerge if you are playing in a bar. So there’s the drunks-and-children overlap again.
Ah! Like if a drunk and a child fall down a ravine, neither gets hurt.
Exactly. There are a lot of similarities.
“She dug a tunnel next door. The whole neighborhood’s in an uproar.” In my mind, that’s when your victim finally made her escape and your atrocities made the papers, and the neighbors were saying, “He seemed like such a nice, normal guy!”
Yes, there’s that. But the manifest content is the beavers had babies and spread their habitat into neighboring apartments. A reversal of what we did to them. Even places that seem like deserts now, there used to be beavers taking care of them, making beaver meadows, keeping more water percolating through the soil and improving the environment through being a linchpin species.
I like when, in the song, fish swim down the stairs.
Fish and birds and trees and insects and streams all come indoors.
It’s a postapocalypse, but from the positive viewpoint of the nonhumans. So, you grew up in New York and you moved to L.A. Did L.A. seem like the place you could most likely do creative things and make enough money to live?
Not necessarily. But I like the weather here. I’m kind of a skinny guy, and I don’t like it when the winter freezes my fingers off.
What made you do a whole album about Highland Park?
I wanted to make a Kinks-style record and explore my neighborhood just walking around, from my own perspective. I’ve sung from a lot of far-flung vantages — from the perspective of a bee, of Albert Einstein. So I just wanted to do one album of just me, what I observe and think, and about my home.
Here’s a lyric from Historic Highland Park: “The rats are swimming towards our rising ship.” Are the rats the hipsters?
Yeah. I’m singing from the vantage of a psychotic paranoid pseudohipster who is afraid that Highland Park is the new Silver Lake and he sees these trendies moving on over here.
But he’s a trendy himself, right? And really, who loves the hipsters? They’re like Nazis; nobody loves hipsters. Not even hipsters!
Hipsters are the first to hate themselves. That’s part of the whole thing. And all over the world there is provincialism. In L.A. we have an Eastside-Westside rivalry because that’s fun. Within the Eastside, we have northeast L.A. versus Silver Lake.
It’s The Northeastside Story, Rats vs. Rats.
We ended up here just because it was affordable and didn’t seem that dangerous. You have to have a home somewhere; this is the one we washed up on.
What is your definition of masculinity?
Haha. I think it’s pretty open. I think a lot of what’s left of the music industry embraces dudes who are angry and very dudelike, singing about dude problems. And the girls get to be, you know, sexy. Whereas the innate self of most people is bigger than their gender.
Is that why you sing so much from the perspective of animals and insects and dead people?
Why not sing from the perspective of a worker bee? Why just take on the persona of a pissed-off dude over and over? Why not be a little more transcendental?
It’s funny, because a bee will never imagine that it’s a human, but a human will imagine what it’s like to be a bee. One of the definitions of being human is that you imagine the nonhuman as self. On occasion.
I try not to project human feelings, to anthropomorphize. I try to stick to the facts of life and death and work and reproduction.
My son is autistic and he was thoroughly digging your music and paintings in the “26 Animals” book. I’m wondering who is the average Artichoke fan. Because it’s not often that he likes something, and when he does, he goes crazy. He obsesses.
That’s so great! And a lot of the really excessive fans can’t help but become musicians are. Music takes over their brains.
Did you ever want to be a scientist?
Yes. I studied physics and geology and art in college. I was interested in being a scientist, but when I had to make a decision, it was to be an artist.
Your wife is an artist, too?
Yeah, she’s a costume designer and a photographer.
And you guys survive?
Haha, just barely. I paint theater sets for a living. I get to go to some industrial space, crank some music and paint a backdrop.
A friend of mine moved to L.A. and got a job repairing or refinishing public art — murals, statues. On the East Coast, we either let it rust, or we tear it down.
That attitude is one of the reasons I moved to L.A. On the East Coast, I was handling $6 million Picassos and being paid $6 an hour and not able to afford a sandwich.
So you actually got to touch these paintings?
Oh, sure. And matting and framing and hanging them.
And they trusted you with these $6 million objects, not supposing you would be seething with resentment?
I think there are lots of underpaid people with positions of great sensitivity, right down to the guy building your house.
Did you ever think of how you could steal one if you wanted to?
I never thought about the people behind the hanging of the great art. I think I just assumed it was a bunch of idle rich people.
Most people who work in museums, in my experience, are the wives of doctors and lawyers. No one else could afford that job! If you’re an artist or musician and you marry another artist or musician, good luck!
The New York Times, May 17, 2005
By MICHAEL ERARD
It’s been years since Timothy Sellers, then a budding naturalist, licked a slug. Now he writes pop songs about scientists who were less absurd about their empiricism. Thirteen of them appear on "26 Scientists: Volume 1, Anning to Malthus," a CD that Mr. Sellers and his Los-Angeles-based band, Artichoke, recently released.
That’s Mary Anning, the 18th-century Briton who assembled fossils to support her family and who first discovered the ichthyosaur. As in Artichoke’s other songs, the one about Malthus mixes biographical detail ("Thomas Robert Malthus/the second son of eight kids/grew up with a stutter") with intellectual history ("with the revolution/came a lot of high hopes/Malthus took a good look/uh-oh uh-oh) and the primordial rock chords of G, D and C ("la la la a la/la la la la la/la la la la la").
In the small but slowly accreting world of science-themed music, songs tend to focus on processes and objects, as in Tom Lehrer’s "Elements." Mr. Sellers, a 37-year-old artist and set painter, wants to change that balance, focusing on scientists "because people like to listen to songs about people," he says.
Though he’s not a scientist, Mr. Sellers pursued a major in physics before switching to art at Williams College (where he and this reporter became acquainted). It seems natural to him that someone would want to dig up Mary Anning’s past, Darwin’s wandering attention span and Einstein’s sleeping habits, or take on the challenge of putting "geocentric," "Copernican" and "phlogiston" into pop songs. The bigger challenge, Mr. Sellers says, was to "try to write every song so that people would dig it."
He ends up with songs that draw scientists not as heroes or as mad geniuses, but as ordinary people who befriended a new idea or two and paid the costs of their passions. Most of the scientists he sings about have been treated well by history: Einstein, Kelvin, Galileo, Heisenberg, Darwin, Marie Curie and Joseph Lister. Others, like the Dutch chemist Jan Ingenhousz, who investigated light, air and plants, are more obscure.
Rock music, even of the indie persuasion, tends to avoid science. The Pixies have a song about Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower, and the celebrated geekiness of They Might Be Giants produced "Particle Man" ("Particle man, particle man/doing the things a particle can") and "The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas," among other science-y songs. And the folk-pop duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle made chemistry a metaphor for romance in "NaCl" ("Just a little atom of chlorine, valence minus one/Swimming through the sea, digging the scene, just having fun"). Scientific themes probably show up more often in music videos, as in Thomas Dolby’s 1980′s hit, "Blinded by Science."
In the late 1950′s and early 1960′s, Tom Lehrer, a mathematician-turned-entertainer, contributed classic science songs like "The Elements" ("antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium"), "Wernher von Braun" and "There’s a Delta for Every Epsilon."
Around the same time, William Stirrat, an electronics engineer, co-produced six albums of science songs for children ("Why Does the Sun Shine?" and "Vibration"). Mr. Stirrat, whose songwriting nom de plume was Hy Zaret, was better known as the person who wrote the lyrics to "Unchained Melody."
Now, most science songs are written for middle school science students, says Lynda Jones, a former teacher and a co-founder of the Science Songwriters’ Association in 1999. The association now has 40 members, a mix of professional musicians and science teachers. Dr. Greg Crowther, an acting lecturer of biology at the University of Washington and an association member, has archived 1,800 songs about science on his Web site.
The association also helps amateurs record their music, encourages songwriters to fill out the song paradigm (marine biology lacks songs) and keeps the science up to date.
Scientific accuracy is a big challenge, Ms. Jones says, interrupting a telephone interview to sing a problematic lyric she adamantly opposes: "Just one element is what an atom’s made of."
"No, no, no, that’s wrong," she says. "No scientist talks that way." She often brushes up the science in her own songs. At the recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, she was reminded that electrons do not actually orbit the nucleus of the atom, but vibrate in a cloud around it. "And I thought, well, I have to change my song," she says.
In his quest to enshrine scientists in rock ‘n’ roll, Mr. Sellers forced himself to choose just one for each letter of the alphabet. "D" was crowded, but Darwin ("grandson of a poet, also of a potter, was brought up by his sister") beat out da Vinci and Doppler.
The list still provokes conversations about whom to include, but mixing the well-known with the obscure was deliberate. "If I picked all totally obscure scientists, people wouldn’t go ‘ah-hah’ quite so fast or at all," Mr. Sellers says. "I also like scientists people know something about because they come with a context."
Finding women was also a challenge. Volume 1 includes Marie Curie and Mary Anning; Volume 2 will have a song about the physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, whose quip makes up the chorus: "There’s only one thing worse than coming home/from the lab to a sink that’s full of dirty dishes foam/and that’s not going out to the lab at all."
Mr. Sellers also minds the accuracy of his songs. In some cases, he explains, the song’s structure "selects for" a certain line. In the song about Dr. Wu, who died in 1997, he needed to add another syllable to her conclusion that "parity was not conserved." (In physics, "parity" hypothesizes that two symmetrical systems will develop symmetrically. Dr. Wu and her colleagues showed this wasn’t the case.) The line, which now reads "parity was not quite conserved," scans better – though it softens Dr. Wu’s claim.
If Mr. Sellers is self-congratulatory about anything, it’s the band’s ability to rock. On a recent Sunday evening, Artichoke rehearsed in the living room of Mr. Sellers’s Los Angeles home, thick sheets of foam hung over the windows to keep the Pixies-like guitar hooks and bass riffs away from the neighbors.
This brand of garage psychedelia still finds room for an accordion as well as the de rigueur theremin, played by the band’s only real scientist, Steve Collins, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Their sound has won some notice, including a 2002 review in The Los Angeles Times that praised the "inspired songwriting" and "infectious indie pop."
Mr. Sellers grew up in upstate New York, the oldest son of back-to-the-land parents who took to the woods and built an A-frame house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Mr. Sellers calls it his "Robinson Crusoe childhood." He and his younger brother created their own natural history society, where all the members were required to present their discoveries.
Mr. Sellers’s slug-licking episode occurred when he was 10 and was helping his mother tend their garden tomatoes. As he removed slugs rom the plants, he recalled asking, "Why don’t the birds eat them?" Because they don’t taste good, she replied. Disbelieving, he picked up a slug and licked it, an act he quickly regretted: the slug indeed tasted bad, and its slime burned his tongue. But he used his data. He wrote about the experience to get into Williams, singing the praises of first-hand exploration.
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
Voice of America, July 13, 2005
By Gini Sikes
Recently a major U.S. paper, The New York Times, declared a new trend in music – songs about science. That’s right, folk singers and rock bands singing about physics, astronomy or molecular biology. Just how big is this "trend?" And who is listening?
Galileo is just one of the scientists the Los Angeles band Artichoke sings about on its CD, 26 Scientists, Volume One. The songs are biographical sketches full of personal details about some of science’s most famous figures. For instance, Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but he was a notoriously bad violin player. And Charles Darwin suffered from a wandering attention span. The band also celebrates some lesser known scientists, such as Joseph Lister – from whom a mouthwash "Listerine" gets its name. Lister, as the father of antiseptic surgery, figured out doctors needed to wash their hands.
Artichoke’s founder and main songwriter, Timothy Sellers, chose a scientist for each letter of the alphabet. Volume One goes from "A" for Mary Anning, a paleontologist, to "M" for Thomas Robert Malthus, famous for his Principle of Population.
"I tried to pick the one with the best story. When you find good personal information it is really nice to grab onto it and try to work that into a song – like Thomas Robert Malthus, the fact that he had a stutter. And Galileo has the really sing-able name Galilei Galileo, so you can’t go wrong there," says Mr. Sellers.
Artichoke is hard at work on its Volume Two CD, picking scientists for the remainder of the alphabet, which, says Mr. Sellers, can be a challenge.
"X is coming up. I pretty much went with whoever was available. X is Xenophanes. He was an ancient Greek, who was walking around in the countryside and he saw fossils of fish on tops of mountains and he thought, ‘Hey this probably was ocean at one point and so there’s either a lot of time or a lot of change, or both.’ I am very glad he [his name] began with X," he says.
Although Mr. Sellers calls himself a lapsed physics major, having once studied it in college, only one member of Artichoke works in a science-related field, engineering. Yet there are enough actual physicists, biologists and astronomers out there writing songs to warrant a Science Songwriters’ Association.
That’s Walter Smith, associate professor of physics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he’s known on campus for singing about physics in his classroom.
"A lot of our tunes are set to well established folk melodies. They are tunes that are not necessarily familiar to my students because they are a younger generation but they just love the whole experience about having a song sung to them about physics at all," he says.
Professor Smith began writing science songs with his wife in 2001 as a way to engage students. Then he started posting them on the Internet.
"I discovered there were a lot of songs about physics that are out there on the web but they are completely unorganized, so maybe I should be the one to do this. So I created this website Physicsongs.org and the site has just sort of grown over the years. With that growth I feel I have become the world’s expert on physics songs," he says.
And there is a wide variety of musical styles. Smith’s preference is folk, but if that is not yours, how about a cappella?
"The Chromatics are a group that that does a cappella songs about astronomy. They are obviously very in the know because some of their songs are about satellites that have not even been launched yet, these are research satellites that are still in the planning phases, and yet members of this group know about that. So they are pretty well plugged," he says.
There is even something for cabaret fans.
"Lynda Williams at one point in her career was a show girl but now is a physics instructor. Her style is more of a sultry cabaret style so her songs are not really intended for use in the classroom," says Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith says that most science songs fall into one of two categories, the first being educational.
"Then there is a different category of physics songs which are really intended for the entertainment of physicists, so these would be songs that are sung at physics picnics or at the opening of a new facility. A lot of the song are just chock full of things that are in-jokes to physicists," he says.
Physics picnics, who knew? Although their tunes about deuterons or magnetic fields may never top any radio charts, these singing physicists are evidence that outside of the lab, scientists just want to have fun.
from radio station KUCI‘s music director, Kyle Olson
Artichoke – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols by Artichoke (Greeen)
Previously, all I knew about this band is that KUCI had a copy of their album "20 Grit" which was covered in sandpaper and fucked up CDs around it and it sort of always twisted my biscuit. Now, when this album came, I learned they working on a two-album set of songs for Scientists (one for every letter of the alphabet). So far, they have one volume, Anning through Malthus, done. Now they put out an album which is, as the title suggests, a song-by-song cover of the famous Sex Pistols album. I was completely ready to pass it off as novelty, but you REALLY haven’t heard "Pretty Vacant" until you’ve heard it sung over a ukulele. No joke: this is REALLY FUCKING GOOD. It’s sort of folksy with great vocals, but with some more upbeat songs fused with electronics. "God Save the Queen" has a kazoo solo for Christ’s sake. What will it take to sell you this?!
from Listen Up at usedwigs
What if…They Might Be Giants, Ween, and Camper Van Beethoven broke into Robert Pollard’s studio with a stack of science textbooks and more than a few six-packs? I imagine you’d wind up with something sonically similar to Artichoke’s latest. A fun and stylistically diverse collection of DIY pop-rock, this disc is the first of a proposed two based on the concept of stringing together 26 catchy musical biographies (one for each letter of the alphabet, of course) of historical scientists. That sounds way more highbrow than it actually comes across, though. From the cowboy swagger of "Einstein, Albert" to the percolating "Burbank, Luther," and from the megaphone-voiced rave-up "Galilei, Galileo" to the Beatle-chorused "Darwin, Charles Robert"," this is more School of Rock than science class. This should fit nicely next to the hotly anticipated 5-disc collection by Jay-Z addressing the elements of the periodic table. I hear that "Ununnilium" is particularly bangin’. Standout Tracks: "Malthus, Thomas Robert", "Fuller, Richard Buckminster", "Einstein, Albert", "Burbank, Luther" – RS
"26 Scientists, Volume One: Anning – Malthus." Sounds like a boring book? No way! Its an über-cool new album by the band ARTICHOKE. Featuring eclectic power-pop tunes, one written for a scientist for each letter of the alphabet, its brain-snappingly groovy. Could these folks be the next ARCADE FIRE?
-Michael J. Ryan, Ph.D., Curator and Head, Vertebrate Paleontology, Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
"Luther Burbank is my new favorite song. The use of a spoken
voice in part of it, surrounded by a catchy beat, reminds me a little
-from Linda’s review
of 26 Scientists over at SciScoop
"I was surprised by this cd… expected an annoying, ironic way too self-aware joke thing, but it’s a pretty rocking indie pop album."
-Steve S. of WNUR 89.3 FM in Chicago
"Artichoke’s "Einstein, Albert." Talk about Geek Rock!"
-the song appeared on Clark Boyd’s The World’s Technology Podcast #54
Few if any know what he means, but Mark "Flyingman" Caldwell of WAWL 91.5 FM says "It makes u ponder over your smooth and wrinkled college cafeteria peas. Fun loud GMO Punk well deserving of a "nobel" spin on the radio."
"A quirky combination of guitar pop, artiness,
strange imagery and great songs."
-Chad Kempfert, altmusic.about.com
interview at no-fi magazine
"Am I the first one to get that "Abstract Red Adam" is about the
short story, "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges? Cool! Thumbs
up to 26 Scientists too, from a fellow traveler. "
Evaporation review at EvilSponge
I thought, There must be a mistake. I examined the disc
cover top to bottom. There was no mention of what record label Artichoke
is on. I had already listened to EVAPORATION several times, and I
was shocked to find that this disc is self-produced. This is a bad-ass,
cool album. Where are the suits? Artichoke is a creative, smart, cool,
highly-marketable band. Admittedly, there is a little too much music
inspired by the teachings of Weezer-a trend I am sick to death of;
but Artichoke is at least taking time to twist it a bit and present
it in a new way. There are some LP-period touches on EVAPORATION.
There is the sound of children playing in the water on the song "Noah";
there is a nighttime soundscape on the song "More Spackling Tools".
Artichoke is smart-ass, artsy-fartsy cool. EVAPORATION is fabulous
-H. Barry Zimmerman
Los Angeles New Times
June 20-26, 2002
All heart: With their self-released disc Evaporation,
Artichoke has done the impossible: They’ve gorged themselves on the
Pavement/Pixies diet of ’80s and ’90s indie rock and managed to regurgitate
a sound that doesn’t suck. Frontman Timothy Sellers sings/talks with
a laid-back Steve Malkmus monotone, and some of the guitar outros
could’ve been plucked from Trompe le Monde, but the inspired
songwriting avoids any been-there-done-that pitfalls. "I try
to write songs about stuff no one’s written about yet," says
Sellers. That stuff includes everything from the construction of Noah’s
Ark to his own band’s demise and "geek rock epitaph." It’s
infectious inde pop throughout and though nearly an hour in length,
the disc doesn’t drag. A frequent request on KXLU, they had kids sitting
cross-legged and transfixed at that station’s recent Fundrazor show
at the Knitting Factory. And now booker/curator Mike TV has made them
a welcome fixture at his Launchpad East the last Tuesday of every
month at Mr. T’s Bowl.
Artichoke is Geek Rock
by Steve Jones, Silver Lake Press
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
The artichoke is an interesting food. To most people,
it is an exotic plant that seems scarcely edible. Having grown up
on the stuff, I know that as you peel away the thorny leaves, you
eventually get to a meaty heart. Artichoke the band is nothing like
that. They are more like a pomegranate or better yet corn (most definitely
not Korn). [Editor's note: Please, no food metaphors in CD reviews].
Well, what’s someone to do when reviewing a band named for something?
I mean, I’m sure Pavement got a few reviews that said "band hits
the ground running" and I’m sure Weezer was said to write "anthems
for the asthmatic." But not in this paper, I take it. So forget
that this band is named Artichoke. Let’s give them a new name: how
about the Doomed, or Lies and Betrayals. You pick.
I first stumbled on to Artichoke at Canter’s Kibitz
room. I thought they were a Pavement cover band. It was around the
time that we were all mourning the demise of Pavement, so I was happy
to see a new fresh-faced band picking up the torch. The next time
I saw Artichoke, they had graduated to Spaceland. I met the singer,
Timothy Sellers, who is a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy from the Catskills
Mountains. We both admitted that the Stephen Malkmus album was pretty
good and he mentioned that Artichoke’s CD was now available.
The CD, "Evaporation," is a departure from
those earlier days when I first saw the band. Their songwriting has
matured into that stream of consciousness gibberish that sticks in
your head for days. The music’s got that electricity that early Weezer
In the song "Mix Tape" Sellers sings, "I’m
telling you what we want inscribed as a geek rock epitaph / I’m in
a band in a band that you’ll never hear."
Let’s prove them wrong.
"Evaporation" by Artichoke is available
at Rockaway Records in Silver Lake and Amoeba Records in Hollywood.
Artichoke will be playing at Mr. T’s Bowl on Tuesday, May 28the at