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Beginner's Luck: Tyro gets it right the first time - calculated questions by Marc Hirsh

After the 1997 automotive death of bassist Chris Collins, the members of Toenut found themselves with a new album (Two in the Pinata) to promote and a band on the verge of disintegration. When the dust had settled, the rest of the band ultimately moved on for all the old reasons: new jobs; cross-country moves; the singer marrying the guitarist. Starting from scratch, Katie Walters became Katie Hartley, and Skipper and Katie Hartley became Tyro, recording Audiocards (Mute) with the assistance of friends, family and former bandmates. Pairing space-age keyboards with aggressive guitars while wispy, cracked-angelic vocals float above the proceedings, Tyro's music bespeaks a world where technology and humanity sit comfortably side by side.
How ironic, then, that my attempt to have a pleasant conversation with the Hartleys was rebuffed by uncooperative machinery, specifically a handheld tape recorder that possesses the unusual property of picking up the sound of its own mechanics more prominently than anything aimed at the microphone. The result was an insightful, prizewinning interview made sporadically incomprehensible by a dull roar that occasionally obscures the sound of the human voice no matter how badly I fiddle with the EQ (Katie, however, suggested that the blame may lie elsewhere, saying "Skipper kind of mumbles anyway."). A sheepish email followup came not long after. I've cunningly mixed telephone and email responses to create a better and sleeker interview in which we discussed stagefright, the extended Tyro family and feline intervention. I defy you to spot the seams.

SCR: I'll start out with a hypothetical question. If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you how to describe your music, what would you say?
Maggie: Oh, no.

If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you to describe your music, what would you say?
Katie: I guess we'd have to say rock 'n' roll.
Skipper: An incredibly lazy response.
K: (laughs) I guess, I don't know, weirdo rock 'n' roll, but not really that weirdo. Rocking guitar- and synth-based music which is sometimes playful and sometimes sad, at least for this record, our first record as Tyro. And sometimes very "do re mi" musical style.

Was Audiocards written or recorded under the influence of any particular music that you were listening to at the time?
S: We never try to write songs like any other band, but you are always influenced by what you are listening to. I was listening to a lot of old Talking Heads, B-52s, Devo, Brian Eno ("Third Uncle" in particular), et cetera. I have also been taking jazz piano, and I think that some ideas work their way in from that angle as well.
K: During writing periods, I don't listen to much music. But I do have influences that probably work their way into the musical ideas of Tyro. Before and after writing I listen to lots of different things: classical, jazz, bluegrass, musicals. I love to listen to Fats Waller when I'm cooking in the kitchen. He can really make a sad person happy and a happy person even happier. I practice singing to my favorite musicals, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. They have such amazing vocal lines and very clever lyrics. They never get old. My obsession with half-steps probably came from listening and watching and singing these musicals.

What originally got you interested in playing music?
S: I grew up in a musical household. My father played guitar and my mother encouraged me and my brother to learn instruments.
K: And when I was growing up, mom played piano and dad played banjo and guitar. We had sing-a-longs: "Rudolph," "Jesse James," et cetera. It was always around the house, so...
S: But we had to force her to join the band.
K: (laughs) I've never had the realization, "I want to be in a band." Somehow I just ended up here and it makes sense.

I read that you were yelling at them from offstage and you got called up and that's how you joined.
K: Far from so. I was in college and Skipper and [guitarist] Richie [Edelson] called me up to let me know I was going to be singing in a band they just started and that we had practice that weekend. I was in Clemson, South Carolina, two hours from Atlanta. They had booked a gig only two weeks away, even without having a singer. Oh, the corners your friends will back you into sometimes! During the early years of Toenut, I was stage-shy and would hide at the back of the stage behind monitors, speakers, whatever I could find, and I would sing from back there. It's like no one would ever see me. (laughs) But that was years ago. Yeah, seven or eight years ago. Back in the day.

-- LINKS:

Tyro -- http://www.tyro.org/

Mute Records -- http://www.mute.com/


Photos #1 & #2 by Frank Mullen.

Do you still have problems with stagefright?
K: Not at all! I love playing live. I still have "recording" fright, though. During the first vocal session in the studio, it takes about an hour for my voice to stop shaking from nerves. Recording keys or samples doesn't effect me this way, and I thoroughly enjoy that. Video cameras are a different story and my biggest monster! I hate them. That's when stage/camera fright really kicks in. "If there's one at a show, don't let me know!"

And you guys are on tour now, or about to go on tour again, with Man... or Astro-Man?
S: Well, we've been touring on and off with them. When you saw us [November 18 in Cambridge, Massachusetts] was right up about eight shows. We did two or three here and there with a band I really like, actually, Enon, with John from Brainiac. And we are leaving...we were supposed to leave Thursday, but our bass player unfortunately had his appendix removed a couple days ago, so we're flying my brother down for some shows.

But your bass player is recovering?
K: Yeah, and he's at home now. He had to overnight at the hospital but it's a pretty quick operation. It only takes a half an hour to remove your appendix, apparently. But the doctors told him to stay in town for at least a week, so...

How did you guys hook up with Man... or Astro-Man?
S: We're from the same area, and we came up around the same time.
K: And we played with them when we were Toenut and we were friends with them, so... What kind of reception have you been getting from the Man... or Astro-Man? shows, from those kind of audiences?
S: It's always been great. We're surprised at how good it's been. We've been growing on the road. I mean, we've really played a lot. So it's been interesting.

Do you approach live performances differently than you do recording?
S: You have to. When we write songs, we don't even consider what they will sound like live. We don't even consider if it will be possible to play them live. We just arrange the basic pieces into a skeletal form and start layering on patterns in the studio. We can spend hours on tiny little parts that most people won't even hear. When we start playing these songs out, however, we're faced with a much bigger challenge. There isn't a lot of room for subtlety at a rock show, so we have to figure out a way to strip the tunes down. We throw out the songs that don't work and keep those that do. We also try to play an energetic set, so some of the slower, and possibly better, songs just don't fit in.

Have there been any Toenut fans that have been following you guys, or have you been tempted to throw in a Toenut song into your set?
K: We still play those songs, and someone will yell out Toenut things, but we're limited in to what we can play because we have so many different people playing with us. When we go out on tour, there's a set list we have and we play it every night, but we do throw in some old Toenut songs.

Tyro #2 When Toenut called it a day, how long before you decided to become Tyro?
K: It's been three years since we recorded the last Toenut album.
S: After Chris died, we knew that were going to change the name. We toured as Toenut to support Two in the Pinata, but that was that. Richie, Katie and I continued to play and write but didn't spend any time thinking about the name change. When Richie joined Man... or Astro-Man?, Katie and I started getting more serious about finding a new name. So, I would say it was gradual, and it still isn't over. We continue to play some Toenut songs, though we focus on the Tyro stuff.

Was there ever any question that the two of you would continue to make music but not with each other?
S: No.
Has there ever been any problem with the two of you being a couple in either band?
K: No.
S: Not to us.
K: (laughs) We've been together over ten years. We're an awesome couple. Everybody loves us.
So it's never caused any problems with inter-band conflict, with you taking each other's sides against anybody else or vice versa?
K: I don't know. If anyone's in besides us, we don't usually take sides. It's all a good time. Nobody gets tired of anybody. We don't stay on the road all that long, so...

How long are you going to be out for this time?
S: Just a few days.
K: We're probably going to start songwriting for the new record over the holidays.

What would you say makes Tyro different from what you were doing with Toenut?
K: Tyro has more guitar-keyboard duels/interactions and Toenut was more guitar-guitar duelling. Tyro has the ability to be playful like Toenut but is much less naive.
S: We also experimented with simplification. When Toenut wrote songs, five different people would write five different parts for a song. When we got into the studio, we were literally surprised by what each other had written. Every part of a Tyro song is written with at least an idea of what else is going on.
K: For Tyro, music is written mainly by a duo.
S: I'm not sure which approach is better or which we will take in the future. These songs were written during sad times, but life moves on. I think that will be reflected in the newer stuff.

Who's actually in the band?
S: Just Katie and me. Tyro really is just Katie and me, and the drummers we're playing with and we need a good guitar player and now we have two bass players. We have lots of good friends who help us out.
K: And we mostly do all the writing at home and then, when it's time to record, we get some friends involved. Brian Teasley in Man... or Astro-Man? and our friend Jeff Sullivan from Drivin' N' Cryin' both play drums on the record. Half the songs Brian played, half the songs Jeff played, and Skipper's brother Jason played bass parts on the record.

Why is it just you two at the core?
S: Well, because Jason lives in New York, and, you know, we came from Toenut, and then we had a tragedy with our old bass player, and then our drummer quit, and then Richie joined Man.... or Astro-Man?
K: So it's just by default that it's just the two of us.

Is Tyro becoming a more permanent band, or will it just be the two of you playing with whoever you get a chance to?
S: We'd like to get a band, actually. For a while, we didn't think we did, and even with the kind of band we would have, I think we'd like to play with other people. That makes it a little more interesting. But there's something to be said about being in a band and writing music with other people.

Who writes what in Tyro? Are there any songs that are for all intents and purposes completely Katie or completely Skipper?
K: Nothing is completely Katie or completely Skipper. We work together, mostly Skipper on guitar and myself on keyboards/piano rocking out in the dining room.
S: I'll usually start with a chord progression or two on guitar. Then Katie will come in on the piano. Tyro does not record a lot of piano, but it's integral to our songwriting. We build the song structure with this basic instrumentation. Next we record what we have onto our computer.
K: Once we have the foundation of a song, I'll add vocal lines/lyrics and we'll both add the ear candy.
S: Then we start playing with others to flesh out the rhythm tracks.

Are the members of the "extended Tyro family" given specific parts to learn, or are they encouraged to create their own working within the framework of what you've written?
S: The songs are already written by the time the cousins get to hear them. However, the drummer always writes his own parts with a little direction from us. There is also a lot of room for the bass player. I wrote very few bass lines on the record. Most of the bass stuff comes from my brother. After that, Katie and I start layering on more keyboards, guitars and loops. Voila, a Tyro song.
K: The only things we work on independently are the 30-second interludes we refer to as "audiocards" that we put on records or use for live shows. Our 16-year old kitty Timer gets credit for those!

Yeah, I've looked at the CD booklet and checked out your web site. How exactly does a cat program tracks?
S: I will leave that to Katie.
K: (laughs) Timer's on my lap right now. Poor thing. Keep in mind that Harka's story [on the band's Website, at http://www.tyro.org/stories/timer/paws.html] is science fiction. But if you knew Timer like we know Timer, lots of the story would seem true. The 30-second audiocards are composed on the computer with Timer on our laps at all times. He's a strange one. He'll sit on anybody's lap when they're at the computer, he's a very friendly cat. I spent five 10-hour days working on something and Timer sat right with me staring at the computer screen and watching my moves. He has the unique ability to listen to annoying little sounds over and over and over again. Most cats would leave the room. One day, Timer reached out with his paw and hit the mouse, even "clicked" it. It was as if he wanted to take over and make his own music. I thought it would make a nice little story, or at least a chapter in a story. So I decided to credit Timer, our soon-to-be-one-eyed wonder cat.

Yeah, I've looked at the CD booklet and checked out your web site. How exactly does a cat program tracks?
S: I will leave that to Katie.
K: (laughs) Timer's on my lap right now. Poor thing. Keep in mind that Harka's story [on the band's Website, at http://www.tyro.org/stories/timer/paws.html] is science fiction. But if you knew Timer like we know Timer, lots of the story would seem true. The 30-second audiocards are composed on the computer with Timer on our laps at all times. He's a strange one. He'll sit on anybody's lap when they're at the computer, he's a very friendly cat. I spent five 10-hour days working on something and Timer sat right with me staring at the computer screen and watching my moves. He has the unique ability to listen to annoying little sounds over and over and over again. Most cats would leave the room. One day, Timer reached out with his paw and hit the mouse, even "clicked" it. It was as if he wanted to take over and make his own music. I thought it would make a nice little story, or at least a chapter in a story. So I decided to credit Timer, our soon-to-be-one-eyed wonder cat.

Is there anything on Audiocards that you're particularly proud of?
S: Well, "Grey Clouds" is my favorite. When we play live, I like to play "Remember When We Were Very Young."
K: I love that song.
Yeah, that's actually my favorite.
K: It was either going to be first or last on the record.
Why wasn't it first?
S: Well, though I'm told it's difficult to tell, this record is supposed to be a bit sad in tone. A lot of these songs are extremely personal and were influenced by the various Toenut tragedies. "Shadow" seemed like it made more sense in this regard. We thought it would be better to end the record with a playful recollection of younger days. It's also better to end with a sense of hope.
K: And I love it there, but I also love opening shows with it.

So is Tyro a full-time job for you guys, or are the Hartleys still working folk?
S: I still work. I'm a computer programmer/mathematical modeller. Katie was laid off.
K: So it's full-time for me and Timer. I'm also learning web development and practicing on our site to fill in the non-writing, non-touring, non-practicing hours.
If I may ask, what did you do before you were laid off?
K: I ran training programs for a company in Atlanta. I had one of those meaningless "Project Manager" titles. In a mass layoff, the training department is the first to go, so there I went. Now I'm a full-time Tyro rocker!

[Author's note: For some reason, I feel the need point out that Katie has been known to sign her emails "Lady Tyro" and shout "Go Tyro!" after songs at her own shows, supporting that last comment.] END


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