Don’t Tell the Jocks: GeekDad Interviews Toren Atkinson

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080830_darkest_of_the_97bab080830_darkest_of_the_97bab Toren Atkinson has your dream job.

It doesn’t really matter what that dream is, because if you’re a geek — and if you’re reading GeekDad you likely are -– Toren has got you covered.

He is the co-founder, frontman, and vocalist of Lovecraftian rockers The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. His art has been featured in roleplaying games like Warhammer and Call of Cthulhu. He has guest starred on Stargate Atlantis. He once even acted as Patrick Stewart’s personal body guard during a particularly rowdy convention season.

Okay, I made that last one up. Still, I think you get the idea.The simple truth is that Toren is a master of a myriad of the geek arts.

When I first began blogging about “nerdy music,” I made a list of all the delightfully odd and undeniably groundbreaking artists I wanted to interview. At the top of this list were Toren and the Thickets. So, to learn more about the man behind beneath all those lights, chains, and tentacles (and to see me get all fanboy crazy), hit the jump.

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GeekDad: The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets have been going strong for some 16 years now. What was the genesis of this project?

Toren Atkinson: Well, in 1992 we saw a fair number of bands enjoying some amount of success around our home town, so Warren, myself, and another friend decided it would be a hoot to start our own band. We had no musical training (the third man never actually made it to the first practice) and, since we were playing in a Call of Cthulhu campaign at the time, it made sense for us to adopt a Lovecraftian monster shtick. Our first show involved three awful songs and a papier-mache Cthulhu head. Nobody stopped us so we kept booking gigs and eventually we mustered up an iota or two of musicianship, even if it never quite matched our showmanship.

GeekDad: How do you explain the longevity of DotHT?

Toren Atkinson: A cold, clinical, Lovecraftian view of the universe.

GeekDad: The band’s name is a reference to the short story The Tomb, but what is your favorite piece of Lovecraftian horror literature?

Toren Atkinson: The first HPL story I read was "The Rats in the Walls" which by no coincidence was the first story in the book Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. It’s a great story and introduction to Lovecraft. However, I can’t really say what my favourite piece of Lovecraftiana is, though there are a few contenders: "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," At the Mountains of Madness and of course "The Shadow Out of Time."

GeekDad: August Derleth: noble friend of H.P. Lovecraft who championed his work when no one else would or opportunistic hanger-on who bent Lovecraft’s ideas to his own devices?

Toren Atkinson: My only real contention with Derleth was incorporating non-Lovecraftian philosophies into the Cthulhu Mythos, such as ascribing familial relations, traditional elemental aspects, and other quasi-religious motifs. To me, Lovecraft was all about the absence of earthly concepts. It should be alien and unknowable, not tagged and classified into a religious pantheon.

GeekDad: Your most recent album, The Shadow Out of Tim (a play on the aforementioned "The Shadow Out of Time"), was released last June. What was the theme of or concept behind that album?

Toren Atkinson: After Spaceship Zero, I wanted to do a slightly tighter concept piece. Originally I thought it would be three songs that tied together to tell one story on an otherwise "normal" album. The more I worked on that the more it seemed that I could spread the story over an entire album. I tried to make an original narrative that was Lovecraftian in nature but not an actual adaptation of a specific Lovecraft story. I had several ideas, but frankly none of them had the magic of simply putting our own spin on "The Shadow Out of Time." So what I did was take the concept from Lovecraft’s original and place it in the modern day with different characters and it went from there.

GeekDad: As the frontman of the world’s foremost purveyors of Cthulhu rock, what are your thoughts on other bands, scenes, or musical communities thematically centered on literary works (such as those rooted in the Harry Potter or Twilight series)?

Toren Atkinson: Well, you know, good music is good music. I listen to Journey and Billy Joel on occasion so I don’t demand genre themes in my playlist, but I think if you can write about something new or different then that’s an added attraction.

GeekDad: Do you feel that the Thickets have a kinship with these other geek/lit rock bands?

Toren Atkinson: They certainly make the live show bill more interesting! Wouldn’t you rather see us play with the Klingon death metal band Stovokor than some angsty emo band singing about the same old generic bromides?

GeekDad: The Darkest of the Thickets recently made their debut on the PAX stage. Was this your first Penny Arcade Expo experience?

Toren Atkinson: Actually, in 2001 or so we played in a parking lot behind an arcade in Burnaby, BC for The NecroWombicon, which was the precursor to PAX. We had just released the Spaceship Zero soundtrack. We are forever indebted to Jerry for inviting us to play PAX this year, and to all the staff who treated us like kings!

GeekDad: Do you feel the success of events like PAX is indicative of a larger geek culture revolution?

Toren Atkinson: I’ve certainly noticed that Cthulhu is not the obscure reference that it used to be. Back when we started there were no plush Cthulhu backpacks.

GeekDad: In addition to your roles as vocalist, songwriter, and D.I.Y. costumer, you’re also a film and voice actor. At what point did you begin acting professionally, and where may unsuspecting fans have seen/heard you?

Toren Atkinson: I did some work for indie Lovecraft films like Return to Innsmouth and Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath but it was a little bit of a haul until I started working professionally, mostly because I’m constantly distracted by art jobs and, of course, music. Lately you can hear me as about 10 different voices in Sword of the Stars by Kerberos Productions (amazing space 4X video game, btw) and watch me die a gruesome death in the Stargate Atlantis episode "Midway." Oh, and also as the voice of a live action turtle in a Barbie as the Island Princess commercial — mustn’t forget that!

GeekDad: Like many of us, you were introduced to role-playing games via the gateway drug known as Dungeons & Dragons in your formative years, but unlike most you’ve gone on to provide illustrations for a number of RPGs. In what sourcebooks and manuals has your artwork been featured?

Toren Atkinson: I’m actually in the process of getting ready to move house so I can tell you — too many. Spaceship Zero the roleplaying game, of course, and many other books from Mutants & Masterminds publisher Green Ronin. I’m in the d20 Call of Cthulhu from Wizards of the Coast, some Warhammer books, the Call of Cthulhu card game… You can actually find a list of most of my things on pen-paper.net.

GeekDad: In 2002, you achieved the ultimate gamer fantasy: getting your own tabletop RPG published. It went on to win an ENnie Award for best independent role-playing game. What makes Spaceship Zero different from other RPGs?

Toren Atkinson: I wouldn’t say that the game breaks amazing new ground in the RPG world, but one thing I have heard from people who’ve seen it is that it’s a really fun read — even if you don’t play it (which you should) you’ll get a kick out of the setting and the general writing style. It’s tongue in cheek 50′s space pulp with a Lovecraftian edge.

080830_darkest_of_the_97c6b080830_darkest_of_the_97c6bGeekDad: It was just announced that the Thickets would be the first independent Canadian band featured in the video game Rock Band, with the unreleased track "Shhh…." joining songs from nerdcore visionary MC Frontalot and geek rock troubadour Jonathan Coulton in the downloadable "PAX Pack." What is this song about, and when was it originally recorded?

Toren Atkinson: When we recorded The Shadow Out of Tim there were two tracks that didn’t fit the narrative of the album, so we left them off. We planned to put them on the next album, or have them available for whatever might come up in the interim. When Harmonix and PAX asked us to come on board for the PAX Pack, we set everything from our catalogue on the table and let them choose what they thought would work best. They actually chose "The Innsmouth Look," but as we tried to get the song "stems" — the separate bits of all the instruments — we realized that the technology we used in 1999 to record it was now obsolete and hard to get! We were actually a last minute addition to the Rock Band project, so in the interest of getting everything done in time they shifted to something newer – "Shhh…."

The song itself is actually one of our darker songs, not Cthulhu-centric, about a guy who is doing some non-descript creepy thing in his basement or workshop, apparently involving human body parts, and trying to smooth it over to his spouse who has just discovered the grisly enterprise.

GeekDad: You front a geek rock band, have guest starred in a prominent sci-fi series, and have published your own RPG. Have you ever taken a step back and realized that you are, in fact, living the ultimate nerdy dream?

Toren Atkinson: Now that I’ve played my own song on Rock Band at the Penny Arcade Expo — yes. And I love it! Don’t tell the jocks.

GeekDad: What can we expect from you and The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets in the foreseeable future?

Toren Atkinson: From the band — another album, possibly an EP before PAX 2009, if we’re fortunate enough to be invited back! Myself, I’m working on a comic book called Secret Files from the World Wildlife Federation of Justice (which will at some point have a Mutants & Masterminds tie-in) and a web comic called The Underbelly. My first publication will be in an anthology by the Cloudscape Comics Collective.

GeekDad: Lastly, Toren, which is the more useful tool: duct tape or the Elder Sign?

Toren Atkinson: An Elder Sign made of duct tape!

Photos (c) 2008 Adam PW Smith adampwsmith.com
Photographs not in public domain

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