Most geeks who are into webcomics, geek music, or both have heard of Rock, Paper, Cynic. If you haven’t, you should finish reading this review and interview, then go read the webcomics while listening to Borken Telephone!
Borken Telephone is the latest Rock, Paper, Cynic album to come out of the genius brain of Peter Chiykowski. Our own Z included a song from Borken Telephone on a recent podcast. The album features an eclectic collection of awesome nerd songs about love, government spying, zombies, computers, large mythic monsters, Mario Kart, and more. Chiykowski also gets a little help from his friends–The Doubleclicks, Kirby Krackle, Adam WarRock, Kraken Not Stirred, Professor Shyguy, MC Frontalot, Zach Sherwin, Sarah Donner, Debs & Errol, MC Lars, Kari Maaren, Alpha Riff, Jason Anarchy, Ask Lovecraft, Nerds With Guitars, Alter Ego, Tico Souza, Andre Valerio, Hayden Farrar, and Ian Wright. He has a lot of friends!
To be fair though, only four songs on the album (out of fourteen total), involve said friends. I’m quite fond of The Doubleclicks, so it wasn’t a big shocker that my favorite song on the album is the one featuring them–“Geeks in Love.” I’m a sucker for funny geek romance songs. But all the songs on the album are a lot of fun and great to listen to, but none more so than the experimental final track–“The Borken Telephone Experiment Complete Sequence.” This is the song where most of the aforementioned artists and writers join in. Imagine a short song repeated by 15 different musicians based solely on hearing the previous artist play the song–just like the game telephone but with music!
I have to admit, I don’t listen to a lot of funny music (is there much out there?), but I laughed so much listening to this album. It almost doesn’t feel right having this much fun listening to music. However, I fully intend to keep listening and laughing.
In addition to listening to and enjoying the latest album, I also got to ask Chiykowski a few questions.
GeekDad: How did you get started making comics and music?
Chiykowski: I’ve always been drawn to comics. As a kid I would devour Calvin and Hobbes and FoxTrot collections whole, and whenever a special edition came out where they showed the artist’s process in the back, I’d try to learn how they’d first created their characters.
I think I was about seven when I drew my first comic. My family was on a road trip to the East Coast, and I drew out this convoluted (and doubtlessly copyright-infringing) story called Sea Wars, which was like Star Wars except that it happened underwater with sea creatures. I am not sure if underwater is a legally safe distance from outerspace, but, as a kid, I didn’t care. I just wanted to tell a story.
After that I kept on making little comics, drawings and stories–some original, some inspired (or outright lifted) from the books I was reading and the games I was playing.
It’s never occurred to me before, but I started writing music much the same way. I would write parodies and these terrible little original ditties about the most inane topics. The lyrics to “Be a Ham” (a pork-based parody of “Be a Man”) have been lost to time but surely would have made Shakespeare weep with envy.
GeekDad: You have a “day job” but you’re obviously very successful with your comics and music. Is there a point where you think you’d make your comics and music a full-time job?
Chiykowski: That’s the dream, but it’s a difficult one to build a life around. I’m definitely in the middle of a transition period right now, where the whole Rock, Paper, Cynic experiment demands the attention of part- to full-time job but isn’t making enough money, in and of itself, to become my full-time thing. So all this time that I’ve been trying build up this little empire of comics and music, I’ve still been putting in 40+ hours every week at the office.
I do think I’ll get there, but I think I’m going to have to sit down and create a budget, a schedule of projects, and a business plan if I’m going to make the leap.
GeekDad: Do you have any advice for others who want to make their passion a paying gig?
Chiykowski: The first piece of advice I’d give is this–there’s creative success and there’s financial success, and you need to be able to appreciate both. Being a full-time creative person is such a long uphill battle that you need to learn how to savor the creative victories that don’t make you money just as much as the financial victories that don’t fulfill you creatively. If you count those as failures instead of little victories, it’s easy to exhaust yourself.
For me, being a creative professional takes a weird blend of discipline and leniency. Without discipline, you’re not going to be able to plan long-term projects, hit deadlines, and make sure you’re producing every day. But if you can’t forgive yourself for falling short of your goals and deadlines, you start inviting this debilitating anxiety into the creative process, and that can be debilitating.
It’s very, very hard to hit that sweet spot of overlap on the Venn diagram of “things that are creatively fulfilling” and “things that make money.” Definitely keep honing in on it, but celebrate the little victories.
GeekDad: Speaking of your day job, I’d never heard of Free the Children before, but it sounds amazing, and I’m going to look into getting my family involved (I downloaded the WE Families Guide). How did you get involved with them, and can you tell our readers why they’d want to get involved too?
Chiykowski: Yeah, WE Families is a great program! It’s something relatively new for us, actually. We’ve always had all these resources for families who want to take action on local and global issues together, but we’re only now starting to build a focused program around it. I actually wrote the WE Families Guide, although a lot of pieces of it were adapted from existing resources.
Writing for Free the Children is really different from my creative work, and I love it for its own set of reasons. I get to build out resources that change the way people think about their place in their world and their ability to make change happen. I get to build out resources that bring families and schools and communities closer together. It’s definitely a privilege.
What I think most people connect to about the organization is that it has resources that support you in taking action on things you care about. So if you have a passion for a particular social issue, our goal is just make it easier for you to make an impact on that issue. You do you, and we’ll have your back.
GeekDad: Obviously, you’re multi-talented–comics, music, fiction, non-fiction–do you have a favorite?
Chiykowski: It’s weird, because I do work in a lot of different genres, but I’ve never felt like one of them is my creative homebase. I can’t remember where I heard this–I think it was the If I Were You podcast–but you never hear a chef describe themselves as a “chopper, peeler, boiler, roaster, and mincer.” All of those related skills are bundled up in the creative package of being a chef.
That’s kind of how I think about my creative work. Illustration, music, and writing are all just different preparatory techniques for serving someone a palatable idea. In my case, I mostly serve jokes, and I just try to use the best techniques I can to prepare and present them.
GeekDad: What are your biggest influences for your comics, writing, and music?
Chiykowski: Oh, man, I hate this question. I mean, it’s a good question, and a fair question, but it brings out a lot of anxiety in me. I feel like I internalize a lot of what I read and watch and play, and I love being able to see my work and trace it back to a particular thing I took in, but it also means that I owe a creative debt to a huge number of people, and if I start listing them, I know I’ll miss as many as I hit.
But that’s kind of a cop-out, so let me think about what’s been influencing me lately.
Hamilton the musical, definitely. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda just changed the game in terms of songwriting and rhyme densities. As I work on new songs, I find myself trying to cram in extra internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance.
For comics, I’ve been getting really into Doodle for Food lately. I’ve been reading the comic for a while now, but lately I’ve been studying how good Megan is at using non-verbal panels.
When I’m writing fiction, I always think about the beauty of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. That novel rips me open every time I re-read it. So much beautiful imagery and and so many moments between characters that touch the deep parts of your heart and brain.
GeekDad: Something along the lines of, “Being a geek isn’t about what you love but how you love it,” is sort of the new geek mantra. Do you have anything, besides music and comics, that you consider yourself a geek about?
Chiykowski: I’ve definitely become a huge Hamilton geek in the last few months. I live in Canada, and the musical hasn’t hit in a big way up here, so I’m driving my family and friends bonkers with talking about Hamilton NON-STOP. It’s such a deep and layered creative work, and there’s so much of it to unpack. I’ve probably listened to it 100 to 200 times in the last couple months.
GeekDad: You mentioned you were a fan and reader of GeekDad–do you remember how you first found us and started following us? I started reading GeekDad myself before my son was born, so I love meeting other non- or pre-parents who also read GeekDad.
Chiykowski: I first found GeekDad through The Doubleclicks. I can’t remember how I found the link exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was one of the articles covering their Dimetrodon Kickstarter. I had heard about them through friends and listened to a few songs here and there, but hadn’t sunk my teeth in their larger work yet. Reading the article, I just got such a sense of, “HERE IS A THING I THINK YOU WILL LIKE, AND HERE’S WHAT I THINK YOU’LL LIKE ABOUT IT.” And that comes from such an earnest, geeky place. It got me deeper into The Doubleclicks and started me following GeekDad for more stuff I’d enjoy.
I think it’s just a great site for geeks who have reached a certain stage of half-maturity in their lives. People who are building something, but at the same time, aren’t taking that process too seriously. And that’s where I am in my life. I’m gearing up to have kids some time in the next few years, and I don’t plan to surrender my geeky indulgences to parenthood.
GeekDad is proof of concept that you can pull that off.
GeekDad: Thanks, Peter!
NOTE: I received a review copy of the album but all thoughts and opinions above are my own.