Tyler Walker is a composer, sound designer, and app developer who's written the soundtracks for some of Improv Everywhere's most notorious events.
In addition to his work with the prominent improv group (responsible for events such as the legendary Pantsless Subway Ride and numerous NYC flash mobs), his music has been heard in video games, on TV, and in movies. His most recent standalone albums — Spacefaring Male and Soup Ascends — are two different perspectives on the vague theme of space travel. (Spacefaring Male sounds like retro-futuristic lounge music; Soup Ascends is hazier, ambient, and more electronic).
If that isn’t enough, you can also see him starring in the trippy music video for his song Memories of Home:
Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?
I’m a composer and an app developer. I tend to really nerd out on the things I’m into. If you engage me on any of the following topics at a party, I’ll probably keep going until my wife elbows me: pinball, backgammon, synthesizers, fountain pens, 70’s music, typewriter restoration, microcontrollers, tennis, video games, playing cards, computer programming, European boardgames, handwriting, disc golf, antiquing, fermentation, machine learning, and books.
How did you discover the Hudson Valley?
My wife and I met as students at Vassar College. We always imagined ending up back here.
Walk us through a typical day.
I awake in the morning possessed by a demon. I brew a caffeinated elixir which when consumed serves as a temporary exorcism. I ride my exercycle for 45 minutes while playing video games, drink a smoothie, then shower.
The work day is generally either computer coding or music making, but both take a similar form: I sit in my studio alone with a big computer and try really hard not to procrastinate. On particularly lovely days I head to New Paltz or Poughkeepsie and meet friends for lunch. I take frequent breaks both for ergonomics and mental acuity. Most often lately, I’ll play bass for a few minutes. I call it “low frequency meditation,” but really it’s just a chance to stand for a few minutes and let my mind go fallow.
When one or both of my girls get home from school, I turn back into a dad pumpkin, and the work day is over.
Where are your favorite places to spend time in the Hudson Valley?
I’m on the Vassar College campus a lot because my wife works there and my daughter’s daycare is on campus. I have a lot of memories of the campus from being a student, and it’s insanely beautiful in every season. I feel really lucky that it’s still in my daily life. The hill by Sunset Lake, especially in Spring when the flowers first blossom, is one of my favorite places period.
I also adore downtown New Paltz. I think that was one of the primary draws to the area. I love the college town atmosphere. There are also a few places that hit some of my arcane hobbies right on the head. I just discovered that Village Pizza has two of my favorite pinball machines, and I’ve already lost a few bankrolls of quarters to them. There’s an excellent antique store in the Water Street Market. Imperial Guitar and Soundworks is a really well stocked independent guitar store, and CHBO Drums is a custom drum and percussion shop. Both those music stores are somewhat clandestine and I stumbled on them without knowing they were there. In fact, the day I found CHBO, I had to call my wife to pick up the kids because I couldn’t leave.
My friends Arif and Sabeen own a bar called the Hoot Owl in Shawangunk. They have amazing Indian food, and I hang out and work there when I can.
Do you have a go-to coffee or beer order, and from where?
I have to credit Crafted Kup in Poughkeepsie with turning me onto my two favorite coffee orders. They make an espresso called the “Cubano” which is like a standard espresso, but they add sugar to the puck as they pull it. I don’t know why adding the sugar there instead of after makes it completely amazing, but it does. If they made a Cuban sandwich, too, I think I’d move in.
One time I ordered a latte, but asked the barista if I could have it with a lot less milk. He said, “you mean like a cortado?”
“What’s a cortado?”
“It’s equal parts espresso and steamed milk,” he answered.
“Yes! A cortado!”
He told me you can use the cortado to tell if you’re in a good coffee shop. If you order one and they stare at you blankly, you’re not in a good coffee shop. Snobs rejoice!
Where do you do your best creative work?
When we first started our house hunt, my wife sent me a listing and said, “Look, this one has a music studio!”
“Ha, that would be nice,” I replied. But what the heck, we went and looked at it. It was the first house we looked it. It turned out to be more like a shed attached to a converted garage with plywood floors and bare sheetrock walls. But there was a walled in “booth” with a window. The previous owner had used it as a rehearsal space and to record his rock band. After 4 months of looking at other houses, it ended up being the one we bought.
I got all my gear into this “studio” and it sounded terrible. The space was actually very big and echoey, and I’d been used to NYC bedroom studios.
I started researching acoustic treatments. This turned out to be quite the rabbit hole. Acoustics is one of those intersections of art and science where everyone has an opinion and nothing overlaps. It’s also extremely dependent on the details of the particular space. It became apparent that I needed somebody who knew more than me to look at the space and tell me what to do.
Amazingly, I found a number for a company in Highland that did acoustic architecture. I called them up and set up an appointment. When the guy came he was not at all impressed and said something like, “I wouldn’t even normally come out on a job like this, but it was on my way to the city, and there aren’t many studios around here, so I was curious.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that. They quoted me a price to make a design, and it was the cost of my entire renovation budget, including building and installing everything! But I didn’t know what else to do, so I went for it.
They came back and took measurements and did a bunch of acoustic analysis of the space with fancy equipment. A few weeks later, I had my blueprints. It took another two years before I could afford the materials and time to execute the design, but once finished, the room was incredible. It now looks, feels, and most importantly, sounds like a professional studio.
What I didn’t know during that first visit was “the guy” was John Storyk, founder of WSDG, one of the biggest architectural acoustic design firms in the world. His first project was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio in New York City in 1968. They have offices in New York City, Miami, Switzerland, Germany, and Brazil. Their world headquarters just happens to be next to his house in Highland. The number I found was an old number for an offshoot business or else this would have been evident from the start. If I knew who I was talking to, I probably would have never called.
That’s a fairly long-winded way of saying that I do my best creative work in this shed-turned-professional-recording-studio. My favorite room in the world.
How has the Hudson Valley influenced or impacted your creative work?
There are trees outside of every window of my house and every window of my studio. When I sit down to work I feel like there are no limitations on me. It’s beautiful and only a little terrifying.
What’s surprised you most about living and working in the Hudson Valley?
Sandwiches! There are amazing sandwiches in every single direction from my house. I can’t believe it. Russo’s in New Paltz. Hard Roll on 299 in Highland. Wagon Wheels on 9W. Frank’s in Marlboro. Noto’s on 52 in Newburgh. It is crazy how good these sandwiches are.
How’d you get involved with Improv Everywhere?
Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, was my neighbor in Astoria. I was pals with his roommate, Ken.
When the 3rd iPod came out around 2003, those white earbuds became ubiquitous on the NYC subway. Charlie had the thought, what if they were all listening to the same thing? He ran the idea by Ken who said, “Our neighbor, Tyler, has all this recording equipment in his bedroom. You guys should hang out.”
The “everyone listening to the same thing” idea became the first Mp3 Experiment, which was a stage show at the UCB Theater in Manhattan. The audience all had to press play on their iPods, portable CD players, and Walkmans (one guy had a laptop) at the same time. The first 10 minutes they were seated, then prompted to join together on stage for the rest of it. Eventually a friend of ours dressed as Santa Claus led them all to a bar down the street.
Most of the following Mp3 Experiments took the more familiar form of meeting in an open public space and had a lot more people than would have fit in the small theater.
That was my first engagement with Improv Everywhere, but I started participating in as much of their “missions” as I could. Charlie and I (and 6 others) had to appear in court for this fake U2 rooftop concert.
This was still before we made videos for YouTube. In fact, YouTube had only existed for about 3 months when did this. The reports of our antics on the website were mostly text. Around 2008 we started getting more serious about making videos, and that’s when my contribution started to shift more towards composing the scores to our videos and producing Mp3 Experiments than participating in missions.
Tell us more about your app development work. What kinds of things are you building? How’d you get into it?
Back in 2013 I read this article about the guy who made the music for Super Stickman Golf (great game).
While he worked on the game, the devs showed him behind the scenes, and he got interested in game development. Eventually he started working on his own games. He fell in love with development and almost by accident career shifted away from composition.
There’s one line that resonated with me at the time: “Game design is convergent, while music is divergent.” When you’re making music, every door opens another door. Sometimes it feels like you’re always getting farther from your goal. I was working on a particularly frustrating music project at the time with many revisions and false starts, and I knew exactly what he meant. But at the time I had no interest in game development, and I remember feeling burning envy that he abandoned his successful career in game music when I desperately wanted to break into it. I wrote him off as a fool and moved on.
Even though that project was frustrating, work was flowing, and I was busy. Two years later I was working on some music for an iOS game that my friend Chris was developing. I was finally getting a little traction making video game music. I had the seed of an idea for a music-based iOS game, so I ran it by him.
“Great idea. You should make it.”
Despite his game, music work was slow, so I cracked iOS tutorials. When I got stuck almost immediately, he bailed me out. I had no idea I was entering a long draught of paying music work. I kept getting stuck, and he kept bailing me out, so I started working at his house once a week. We called it code camp.
Just as I was getting my teeth cut, Chris got some contract work that fit well with what I had just learned. I put my game idea on hold (I won’t finish it. I now think it’s a fairly bad idea) and dove in. I fell in love with development immediately. It was pure convergence. The app had a list of things it was supposed to do, and that’s what I made it do. No more, “It’s a little too Egyptian Reggae, if you know what I mean.” I do not! I’ve been doing iOS development full-time ever since. I’ve still taken music projects, but I’ve not done a single thing that didn’t seem awesome, and that’s the perfect situation.
Currently, I’m working on a project called Gracias, a social app that makes it easy to share Bitcoin with friends.
If you weren’t a composer and app developer, what would you do?
When I lived in New York City, I had a day job that was difficult to describe. I worked for a custom fabrication shop, and we made things for artists, film, television, and broadway. When somebody needed to have something made, and everybody else said no, they eventually found us.
One example is Pinocchio’s growing nose from Shrek the Musical. A prop house built the telescopic nose, and I built the mechanism and controller that made it shrink and grow.
If I still lived in New York City, I’d probably still have that job. It was very challenging, and the work was really satisfying.
Anything you want to plug or promote?
We just did our 16th annual Mp3 Experiment in New York City. If you’ve never heard of the project, it’s easier to see than explain. Here is a video of the 12th one, which was in the same location.
I created this project with Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere. You can read more about it here: https://improveverywhere.com/missions/the-mp3-experiments/
Tyler’s albums can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, and (below) on SoundCloud.This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Published on July 12, 2019