Collaborations & Inspirations: Interview with Tyler Parkford

Musical Background, Gear, and Process

Perfect Circuit · 06/05/24

Tyler Parkford has been up to a lot. The Los Angeles-based keyboardist and vocalist writes and performs in his own band Mini Mansions and as Mister Goodnite in his eponymous neo-lounge act. He’s backed legendary groups like Sparks and Arctic Monkeys on stage, and collaborated with a star studded collection of artists from Brian Wilson to Josh Homme. Somewhere between all this, Tyler has put out solo project work under the PARKFORD moniker, and kept up his experimental video chops for music videos and more.

Amidst this busy schedule of sessions and tours, we got the chance to pick Tyler’s brain about his process of making music with all sorts of keyboards, samplers, synths, and sequencers. Unraveling the inspiring forces of four-tracks and tracing tales of collaboration, our conversation provides a peek into Tyler’s musical life and the tools keeping him busy and creative.

An Interview with Tyler Parkford

Perfect Circuit: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us and dive into more about you, your experience making music in your own projects and with your many collaborators, and the gear involved along the way.

Tyler Parkford: First of all thanks for having me. I’m a long time fan. Every time I walk in your Burbank showroom I feel like Tom Hank’s character in BIG when he goes to FAO Schwarz and dances on the giant midi controller mat.

PC: You’ve worked with an impressive list of heavy hitters over the years, including the Mael Brothers, Arctic Monkeys, Josh Homme, Brian Wilson, and more, with hefty tour schedules for both your own projects and as support for other artists. Has playing and writing music with different groups been something that’s always come naturally to you, or are there skills you’ve cultivated to succeed at moving (literally and figuratively) through so many different projects?

TP: Regarding group participation, I feel very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had working with different artists and bands. I never really actively searched for it, I wasn’t much of a hustler, I was more of a goofball kid who loved to record demos and pass around burned cdr’s. Making music spawned from this secretive place of infinite solitude that I was in love with, but when I started creating with other artists it felt a lot more freeing. It put me outside the vacuum in a much more uncontrollable space where I could react to others actions and interact with a thought that wasn’t my own. It got me out of myself enough to create idea pathways that I wouldn’t have found alone. I always loved it but that collective process didn’t come naturally, it took a lot of trial and error, and a lot of house parties. I remember me and my friend Kevin Johnson (from Weekend) put together an epic 20 minute instrumental piece for guitar/drum/organ designed to be played at only one party.

I kind of loved that feeling of reckless impermanence back then. The excitement of working towards a one-time-only experience. I still try to apply that mindset today. I think the hardest part of working in groups for me was effectively communicating ideas and concepts. A lot of what drew me to creating music are those indescribable elements that I try to capture so at first I didn’t want to reduce any of that “je ne sais quoi” into words. It took a lot of practice to get more and more familiar with that process of translating musical perspectives. Oddly now it’s one of my favorite parts of collaborating.

PC: As someone who works on solo projects, collaborates in bands, and also works supporting other people’s projects as a touring musician, how do these different situations change your approach to making music?

TP: Writing in groups is a lot more improvisational for me, not just musically but conceptually. Especially if the seed of an idea originates from someone else, it’s really fun to add new territory to that world or imagine where the road might turn or any characterizations along the way that pop out of the melody bushes (especially those middle-8 nomads). I’m making it sound like musical LARPing but for me there is a lot of cooperative fantasy involved in groups. There’s these fuzzy perimeters and blurry rules established in the beginning that become more clear as I move forward in tandem with someone else, like the net becomes more visible the more the ball is bounced. Live performance feels more like a puzzle. My focus becomes more centered on creative ways of reproducing sounds and reinterpreting arrangements. Sometimes it’s logistical problem solving like how and when to manipulate oscillator settings on the MiniMoog and MaxiKorg, or sometimes it’s repurposing a Clavinova to sound like a fuzz guitar like on this last Arctic Monkeys tour, or pressing backtracks to vinyl so they can be played onstage from an old record player like in my Mister Goodnite sets. Sometimes it’s flipping the arrangement completely and playing a melody on a monosynth instead of piano, or reviving a melody that would be normally lost in the original mix so the performance becomes its own interpretation.

I also have such an intense physical connection with playing music so it’s important to give myself space and the bandwidth to get lost in those moments instead of maximizing how many keyboards I can touch at once. When I write solo material the process varies a lot more, but more often than none it’s the character of the sound that directs the unfolding of the adventure. The songs I write on piano go to very different places than the songs I write using synths or the Clav or guitar or on a small Casio. Sometimes I’ll use a vocal effect to guide my instincts. I imagine things differently when I sing with a slap delay or a psyched-out phaser, it’s like the effect affects the writing process. I also usually prefer to write the whole thing out without words or even an idea of what the words will portray, I let the finished melody dictate those thoughts once I listen to it down. It varies every time.

PC: I read in an interview that you got your start in music by recording songs on a Tascam Portastudio, often hiding from boarding school proctors under your blanket so you could keep working. There’s surely something inspiring to me about a simple four-track like that, and I got a kick out of hearing you talk longingly about those days. What were those early recordings like?

TP: Yes! That was at a boarding school I went to for two years called Webb. Lights out at 10. I couldn’t do vocals under the bed sheets since the night proctors would hear it, so I’d strum my Squire direct-in with the gain cranked in my headphones under the sheets and watch out for signs of flashlights outside. That Tascam Porta 4-track was amazing, I was so blown away when I first double-tracked a vocal. Back then I was a huge fan of Weezer, Elliot Smith and At the Drive-In, so a lot of those demos were messy attempts of creating a hodgepodge of those influences. Then I got this pocket-sized Korg Pandora digital 4track which had all these blown-out built-in effects so I could record more psychedelic stuff. "Katching Kites" was recorded on that. I really liked the controlled messiness of recording on those early four track gadgets.

PC: Has recording music - engineering, mixing, mastering, as opposed to strictly writing and playing - continued to be a part of your musical practice?

TP: Ya definitely. I’ve always preferred to record as I write and draft the piece “chapter by chapter” without knowing where it will end. The better I got at amateur engineering the more fun the writing process got for me. In a way, demoing is the way I write. It’s been that way since that first Tascam. GarageBand was my ride-or-die DAW forever until Logic finally looked exactly the same, so I made the big switch and never looked back. I’m no engineering wiz by any means though, most of the final product gets mixed and engineered by my good friends Michael Harris and Cian Riordan who are insanely gifted.

PC: Was being creative something you always knew you wanted to be involved with professionally? Was music always the focus or are you interested in other creative stuff, too?

TP: I always had this hyperactive creative gremlin in me but I never assumed that I’d get to feed it professionally. That’s what attracted me to making music in the first place, this idea that I’d always get to create it no matter what I did for money. Same with writing prose, I still love to write the occasional short “flash fiction” if not for my own enjoyment. But movies were my first love. After seeing Evil Dead 2 in 7th grade I remember this realization that I wanted to make something wild like that. I’d shoot horror films or claymation exploitations on my dad's hi8 cam and eventually studied film at UCSC making a bunch of weird experimental films. I wanted to be a filmmaker so bad back then but making music was so much more instantly gratifying. I didn’t need a lighting crew and a set designer and a line producer to make it, I just needed a mic and a little machine. I still incorporate that love I have to create something visual whenever I can, especially when music videos are the perfect excuse to experiment with a new concept that doesn’t quite fit a narrative piece. The Mini Mansion’s video for "Cheap Leather" I made using a 3TrinsRGB+1c video synthesizer by Bleep Labs. So fun. I’d like to explore more video synthesis for future projects. I still have a cool video feedback mechanism that I use in the garage when I write, just to zone out on. I’ve always been personally invested in how a piece of music is visually manifested or how video and audio interact in interesting ways. I can’t wait till VR synthesis becomes more approachable.

PC: What made you gravitate towards keyboards? Were there any particular experiences with certain instruments, musical artists, or something else that led you to keys over other instruments?

TP: I was taught classical piano for years as a kid but I didn’t really enjoy it at all and actually gave it up for a very long time. I got into playing bass and guitar in high school bands to have fun and get wild but then when I started to write and record music I realized how much easier it was for me to use keys as a writing instrument instead of the guitar. So I came back full circle. I think once I got really into ELO and proggy pop like Yes, Procol Harum and Pearls Before Swine is when I really fell in love with using keys as an instrumental entity and not just a writing tool.

PC: While you’re often playing synths and keyboards, I understand sequencing has also been a part of your songwriting and recording workflow. Is there a specific context where you’ll gravitate towards the sequencer over a live-performed track, and are there specific sequencers - hardware or software - that you find most useful or inspiring?

TP: I absolutely love to write and record with sequencers but I haven't used them live that much, aside from playing The Number One Song In Heaven live with Sparks. I think I gravitate towards sequencers more recently because they trick me into writing completely differently, especially if it feels like a new language. I’m particularly inspired when I sequence codes in ORCA or build generative compositions with the M8 Dirtywave tracker and the Synthstrom Deluge or fiddle around with scripts on the Monome Norns. I even built a pseudo cyberdeck with most of those gadgets working simultaneously. My most recent obsession has been sequencing midi out of an old Macintosh SE using Cubase 1.0 and a MidiMac interface.

PC: Mini Mansions’ song “Wünderbars” features a drum beat from an old organ you were working with at the time, adding this eerie mechanical feeling to the track that wouldn’t be the same with a normal drum kit or modern drum machine. Are there any other oddities from particular gear pieces that became crucial parts of songs, either in Mini Mansions or elsewhere in your musical life?

TP: Ya I remember thinking that was from an old Fun Machine we had at a studio. There’s a lot of wild SFX patches from the Alesis QS7 that we’ve used for Mini Mansions tracks. What an unassumingly charismatic machine! The main featured drone on "Death is a Girl" came from that synth. I also discovered a lot of weird warped gems from old Ensoniq ESQ floppies or the Realistic Concertmate 500. Some of those sounds were crucial on songs like the opening horns on "Any Emotion" or the string clusters on "Vertigo". It’s not vintage but I’ve gotten so many game-changing SFX sounds from the original Nord Wave that I’ve used for solo PARKFORD tracks and MM tracks and even for live elements of Sparks performances.

PC: You’ve recorded and performed using a ton of keyboards, from toy pianos and radio shack synths, to double-stacked Nord keyboards and vintage organs. With so many sounds to pull from, how do you go about choosing the right instrument for a particular project? Do certain instruments inspire you towards writing certain things, or is it the other way around?

TP: It’s always hard to make that choice when I record, especially with the growing army of highly versatile VST’s constantly in my peripheral. I usually sketch the skeleton with an ensemble of VST’s that particularly excite me. Then I try to substitute those parts with analogue synths or putting the Clav or Wurlitzer or Pianet or the Vox Continental through a bunch of pedals. There is a certain point where I have to remind myself not to be bureaucratic and logical about choosing an option because there’s really no ideal candidate, so I instead appreciate the experiment of getting to that choice. There’s really no wrong way to eat a Reese’s. For live shows, I’ve always performed with a DAW-less setup, usually the Nord Stage 2 carries most of the load with a few analogue synths on the side. This last AM tour was probably the most eclectic setup since I tried to move away from the Nord and lean harder on analogue synths and electric pianos. That ended up being a little fortress made of a MiniMoog, a Hohner String Performer, a MaxiKorg, a Clav and a Wurlitzer, all going through a Lesley.

PC: Aside from keyboards, you’re also a vocalist in Mini Mansions, and sing on your own projects Mister Goodnite and PARKFORD. Your vocal style has been compared to Lennon and Elliot Smith, but throughout Mister Goodnite’s music and in PARKFORD I can hear some Beach Boys, particularly in the vintage feel of the vocal sound and of course your knack for composing harmonic vocal parts. How do you approach vocal writing and recording for your solo projects, and what are some of the influences that led you to your specific style?

TP: That’s flattering but it’s safe to say I don’t hold a candle to any of those icons! First of all I love to sing, whether recording or in the shower. So as long as that playfulness is there I’m open to a cast of vocal “characters'' that I like to explore depending on what the song brings out of me. I love to harmonize and fill in pockets with side-show melodies, so I often approach the voice as an instrument at first, and hum out the melodies and counterparts without any words. Only after the vocals are layered into melodic compositions that excite me do I write words for them. I think the earliest influence for me was Eliot Smith’s vocal phrasings, especially on Figure 8, especially because I naturally feel the most comfortable singing light. Then I got really into psychy bands that influenced my instincts like July, Tomorrow, Love and West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.

PC: I really enjoyed the nested speech samples and other found sounds that appear in the mix of your solo work - have samples been important to your work in music, and how do you go about working them into musical projects?

TP: I love adding the presence of samples to a piece of music that you wouldn’t normally expect it to appear on. There’s this weird playfulness that comes with it. Sometimes it just sounds perfectly evil or strange. I always try to add that to a song especially after it’s fully produced and performed. It’s just exciting to me and I still feel the curveball when it works. I sampled a scene from The Never Ending Story in this Parkford track called I’m The Worst and it just takes the song somewhere else briefly that’s so attractive and personal to me that there was no doubt in my mind that I had to do it. A lot of that playfulness with samples comes when I listen to a piece that’s 99% done and I start to put weird goofy things over it just to have a laugh, then some of them stick because they just feel right and resonate with me, it’s the quickest way for me to hear a song in a fresh way without deconstructing it.

[Above: A few of Tyler's Favorite Keyboards]

PC: You’ve toured on keyboards with Sparks, the idiosyncratic and ingenious duo of brothers Ron and Russel Mael, who’ve been at it since the 70s. What was your experience working with Ron and Russel, particularly alongside Ron as a keyboardist, and are there any fun stories to share?

TP: Touring with the brothers was so fun. They’re total gentlemen sweethearts not to mention humble genius’s through and through. It was such an honor to play alongside Ron and sing backups for Russell. Ron’s never used a sustain pedal interestingly enough, so you might say that was the only aspect I had a “leg up” on ha, but he’s a true master and a real inspiration. Maybe even the only “cool” keyboardist out there. I loved hearing them tell the ol’ stories of gym working-outs with Giorgio Moroder and the LA scenes in the 70’s.

PC: Your solo project PARKFORD released a handful of singles in 2021-2022, and they’re some of my favorites in your catalog. Are you working on any music solo currently, and should we expect another PARKFORD release some day?

TP: Yes! I have another batch of PARKFORD singles coming out this year that I’m very excited about alongside plans to finish a full length by the end of the year with some special guests.