LA Weekly 10.7.2010
Music for Serious Midgets: The Wonderfully Obsessive World of Timothy Sellers’ Artichoke
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?
LC: Am I on speakerphone? There’s a bit of a delay.
TS: No. That’s just how I talk.
LC: 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.
TS: I think you may have little flashes of remembering what it was, but yeah, you’ve pretty much moved on.
LC: But do you feel like a child?
TS: 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.
LC: Do you consider Metallica artists?
TS: 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.
LC: 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.
TS: That’s true. I was going to mention that.
LC: 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.
LC: Do you feel European?
TS: 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.
LC: Are you psychedelic?
TS: I’m not a drug doer. But I am interested in feeling kind of warm, having intense experiences.
LC: 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?
TS: 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.
LC: Ah! Like if a drunk and a child fall down a ravine, neither gets hurt.
TS: Exactly. There are a lot of similarities.
LC: “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!”
TS: 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.
LC: I like when, in the song, fish swim down the stairs.
TS: Fish and birds and trees and insects and streams all come indoors.
LC: 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?
TS: 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.
LC: What made you do a whole album about Highland Park?
TS: 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.
LC: Here’s a lyric from Historic Highland Park: “The rats are swimming towards our rising ship.” Are the rats the hipsters?
TS: 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.
LC: But he’s a trendy himself, right? And really, who loves the hipsters? They’re like Nazis; nobody loves hipsters. Not even hipsters!
TS: 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.
LC: It’s The Northeastside Story, Rats vs. Rats.
TS: 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.
LC: 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.
LC: Is that why you sing so much from the perspective of animals and insects and dead people?
TS: 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?
LC: 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.
TS: I try not to project human feelings, to anthropomorphize. I try to stick to the facts of life and death and work and reproduction.
LC: 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.
TS: That’s so great! And a lot of the really excessive fans can’t help but become musicians are. Music takes over their brains.
LC: Did you ever want to be a scientist?
TS: 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.
LC: Your wife is an artist, too?
TS: Yeah, she’s a costume designer and a photographer.
LC: And you guys survive?
TS: 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.
LC: 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.
TS: 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.
LC: So you actually got to touch these paintings?
TS: Oh, sure. And matting and framing and hanging them.
LC: And they trusted you with these $6 million objects, not supposing you would be seething with resentment?
TS: I think there are lots of underpaid people with positions of great sensitivity, right down to the guy building your house.
LC: Did you ever think of how you could steal one if you wanted to?
TS: Of course.
LC: 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.
TS: 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!