Celebrity Deathmatch Turned Me Into A One-Man-Band

Have you ever found yourself bouncing around the obstacles, flashing lights and flippers of life like a pinball in a machine? Exciting as that can be, usually we find ourselves rolling back home eventually, and maybe appreciating home more after the excursion.

I love writing stories and building strange mechanical things, but all of it comes together through music. Music feels like both a home base, and a conduit to the outside world for me. Whether listening to other artists I like or making my own, music has helped me through the blackest of troubled times, and made the best times even better. At some point way-back-when, I decided I was going to focus all my attention on trying to make it as a music-maker.

As a kid brought up on a diet of Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl and Twilight Zone reruns, making animated movies on an old 8mm camera in my parents suburban basement, I subscribed early to the notion that with a dream and some determination, you can succeed at just about anything.

Thomas - kid in headphones

Always Been A Dreamer

When as a teenager I fell in love with rock and roll, I applied this conviction to it. I knew it would be hard, but I was determined. Fast forward through many years of bands, strange day-jobs, self-released records and disjointed touring. By the time my last band Like Wow‘s final album ‘Burn World Burn’ failed to set fire to the US indie music world (though it did make a few small Best-Of-The-Year lists), we’d become jaded and fed up with trying to survive on what barely covered the cost of getting to the gigs. I’d always thought: “If we just keep at it, if we just work harder, if we study how more successful bands do it and just keep playing everywhere and paying our dues…” (it’s a common story).

Around this same time my drummer Scott Hartley’s old band Liquid Liquid (who’d disbanded 15 years or so earlier) suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of a massive out-of-court settlement with Grandmaster Melle Mel (Grandmaster Flash) who confessed that he’d used Liquid Liquid’s Cavern as the backing track for his massive hit ‘White Lines.’ Scott began receiving huge retroactive royalty payments. The settlement drew attention, and Grand Royal (The Beastie Boys label) jumped in to re-release the old Liquid Liquid catalog. A reformed Liquid found themselves on big stages at festivals in front of a whole new audience. A band that hadn’t played in well over a decade! Suddenly my ‘If-we-just-keep-at-it-work-harder’ ethic and $20 gigs just didn’t seem to hold up so strong.

It wasn’t long after that that I decided to throw in the towel with trying to make it in music as a career. I’d reached a breaking point of frustration, thinking that there must be something else out there to which I could better devote my talents and energy, and find reward in.

A few years later with David Lynch (photo Chris Saunders)

A few years later with David Lynch (photo Chris Saunders)

I swung towards my visual side, started studying computer graphics, fell in love for a while with After Effects and was delighted to discover that I could film stop-motion directly into my computer via Adobe Premiere and not have to finish a whole roll of film and spend an anxious week just waiting for it to be developed before I could see the results. I built some models and made a martian movie, and found well-paying freelance work as a motion graphics artist quite rapidly.

Then my friend Tunde Adebimpe (later of the band TV On The Radio) phoned me up and said he’d heard I was making stop motion movies. He’d just been hired by MTV Animation, and they were looking for more animators for a new show Celebrity Deathmatch. Tunde passed them my film, and they hired me over the phone. Things were falling in to place in the sort of way, well… in the way I’d always hoped they would have with music. (The irony that this was happening via M(usic)TV wasn’t lost on me).

Thomas at Celebrity Deathmatch

With my co-workers Nick and Johnny on the set of Celebrity Deathmatch

I met some great people working in animation. Animators are a special breed. They spend long days in dark rooms with ‘dolls’, envisioning movement broken down into incremental tiny pieces, then rebuilding them, physically, one step at a time. The finished result of a days work might only be a second or two of film. But when many days of work are strung together, a good animator has infused what started as lifeless parts with vitality, grace of movement, and real character.

Pushing puppets, we call it. The puppets might be clay or foam on the outside, but this is just skin on a carefully constructed armature of wire and/or ball-and-socket joints underneath. These armatures have to be tied down and mechanically hold their positions throughout every delicate increment of any arc of motion the animator deems it necessary to ‘push’ them. Your daily job is to slow down time. You have to think about all the details that might occur in each of fifteen fractions of a second.

People often express that we animators must have an awful lot of patience to spend so much time with such little results. But the reward is that it can be truly magical to bring things to life in this way. There’s a Dr. Frankenstein element to it. I worked on Deathmatch for four years. Shortly after I did a stint animating on Robot Chicken in L.A. This was my last ‘real day-job’.

You can probably start to see how all this played into it when ideas started blooming in my head for my mechanical drum machines, which I began building towards the end of working for MTV. There are a lot of parallels. I have to dissect each new rhythm concept down the same way I would the elements that would make up each frame of a second of film. I then physically construct these around the axis of a wheel. Once there of course I’ve got the luxury of being able to cycle the same rhythm over and over, often for the length of a whole song, and play and sing on top of it in real-time. One of the things I’d been missing about music in my animation days was the immediacy, the real-time nature of it.

Something else happened pretty early on in the process working at MTV as an animator, a kind of epiphany moment. Many of my co-workers were these amazing, passionate artists. Often, after laboriously pushing puppets all day, we would convene at someone’s house over pizza and beer, and watch old Popeye or early Disney animation classics, and talk about animation. They lived and breathed it.

I thought:
My God, these guys love animation with a passion, they love it

like I love music.

That was the epiphany moment. It hit me like a stone to the heart when I realized no matter how hard I might have tried to escape, no matter what hurdles it presented me with, music was still my passion. Since then I’ve taken all I’ve learned -and all I’ve earned- and I put it all back in to making music. It remains a challenging business, but I’ve come a very long way since those early struggles.

The process of making music is in itself a reward and a journey of self discovery. But its the sharing of it, and the realization that you are connecting with other humans (in a way that can only be described musically) that is the biggest reward.

I’ve always been attracted to and make music that is not so easily categorized. I’m so thankful and humbled that, over the long-haul, I’ve managed to connect with enough adventurous people that I’ve been able to keep on doing what I love most. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’re one of them, so… thank you!

As usual, please let me know what you think about these blog entries by leaving comments or questions, I like hearing back and really appreciate you taking the time to read these.


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