Reet Sound Effects – Exposed meets Michael Winslow
Providing voices and characters for the likes of Gremlins, Spaceballs, a selection of typewriters, and most memorably Larvelle Jones in the Police Academy movies, Michael Winslow is a walking talking sound effect.
Joining the actor/comedianfor a chat over Skype to talk synths, movies and his forthcoming appearance at Sheffield City Hall, I kept thinking about how weird it must be to be his missus, perhaps with a couple friends over for lunch, when there's all these noises coming through from the study of Gremlins fighting, pirate parrots squawking, terrified skiers on gondolas and the like. As the clips in the below illustrate (included with Michael's permission), it's as fun and unpredictable as interviewing a Looney Tunes cartoon…
Michael: Tell us about Exposed.
Exposed: We're a magazine from Sheffield about music and culture and going out and making sound effects with your mouth. Tell us about Gremlins. I know you did the voice for Stripe but I thought I recognised your voice as the little hand puppet who annoys the Bogart Gremlin in the bar scene?
Woah! Maybe? During Gremlins we did bunch of different things. I did a whole bunch of different voices. The strangest thing was they were all out of sequence because we weren't allowed to see the whole film. The movie theatre scene? That's me and a whole bunch of different people. It was insane. We had to sign releases – non-disclosure agreements – the first of their kind, because Mr Spielberg wanted to make sure that the characters didn't come out before they were supposed to. I was Stripe [Super mischievous Gremlins' boss baddie] and a few others, including the one drinking beer!
Were you recording audio in a room with other guys or was it you in a studio on your own, or a combination?
It was a combination of a lot of things. Me and a lot of other people. This was a hybrid – a Dante picture and a Spielberg picture. Nobody really knew what people's reaction was gonna be. So he really didn't want it to get out early. Everybody was looking at what Spielberg was gonna do next at this point after Jaws and ET and Indiana Jones – there were knock-offs of Gremlins already – so I had to keep my mouth shut and not let anybody know that I was (*Michael croaks a sinister Stripe laugh*) – Ghee-hee-hee-hee! – Until the movie came out.
So you had this great new voice you wanted to show off but couldn't while you were waiting for the movie to come out?
Yeah! I could attest to its existence and nothing else.
Were Spielberg and Dante good for letting you explore and try stuff out to see what it does? That's the gremlin way, right?
I would say yes because even though there was a format for what we had to do with the scene, over however many hours we spent recording there was room to play with things. Remember you had gremlins throwing popcorn, shooting one another, you got stuff going awn! So there's gotta be a freestyle thing there. It was like bad kids in a bar.
It must be really difficult if you're directing the voice talent to describe what you want. “Can you make the noise of a gremlin hanging off a ceiling fan?”
Sure! But the best part of digital recording is you can keep all of your takes. And the choices Dante made were good ones cos people still come up to me and say how they couldn't look under their beds after seeing the movie.
Do you keep your ears open for new sounds? Is there less or more cool stuff to do with the likes of iPhones and mobiles rather than old phones and handsets for instance?
It's nice to know that technology's finally caught up with you. But sound can educate. We've put out a app for iPhone where the entire game – everything from the swords to the flying helicopters to the little animals – is all human. It's called Wizard Ops and this comes alongside the childrens' programme we're working on with Bill Cosby.
He ended up being the person who funded this show for children for me. So Bill Cosby called me on my cellphone and my wife had it at the time and so we thought it was someone playing with us so she hung up on him twice! And the third time he rang he went (*Michael does excellent Cosby voice*) “Don't hang up on me!” This ad I'd done had just run in the US [for US Car insurance dudes Geico – below] and he went “You interrupted my floowww! That commercial was so stupid I forgot what I was working on…”
So that was how you came to work with Bill Cosby?
That's right! And he told me to take these sounds and tell stories with them. So he helped me with that and we're in post production right now. I'm gonna shoot some episodes in different countries. We're hopefully gonna bring it to the Edinburgh festival and we're out on tour so we'll get to see you all!
Yeah! Is there anything in particular we can look forward to on the Underbelly tour which you're bringing to Sheffield?
I've learnt how to do the sound of people being scared in an Austrian Ski Gondola. When the wind is blowing and you go past the tower? That's a very interesting noise! [*Michael does an impression that sounds like Apocalypse Now. The microphone briefly breaks down.*]
A gondola, yesterday.
Are there any sounds that are so big or tricky you haven't worked them out yet?
Oh, I'm sure there is. Remember that thing about technology finally catching up? If I gotta do it in layers I'm still gonna figure it out. But I have to have a use for it. I have to have a material use and practice for it. There's no point in destroying yourself for something you're not gonna use.
That brings us onto History of the Typewriter [short film by Ignacio Uriarte in which Michael impersonates a succession of typewriters, below]. What I love is that while you do a bit of mucking about you also treat it really seriously.
I wanted everyone to know what Ignacio was trying to get at. I almost thought that as a special edition we could put a picture of each typewriter but then I wanted people to go back and look at it – find out about these things. So we thought we'd let them dig it. From the 1880's to the 1980's there's a hundred years worth of typewriters and then printers! And then I had to learn electronic keyboards so that was fun [Michael's expression suggests this wasn't the case]
Did Ignacio play you a recording then let you try to replicate it?
I looked at it, I saw the picture of it and tried to imaging how it would be for a person to actually use it. Some of them were ABCD not QUERY layouts. I was like Okaaaayy! Then to hear to the sound of it, it amazes me. It's a clock really.
It almost sounds like an alien language. Have you heard any of the synth music Sheffield produced in the eighties? We love keyboards and weird sounds!
Oh yeah, I still have my KORG! I've had a couple of em and my favorite was one I don't have anymore which is the KORG Triton Music Workstation where I could put noises into it. I used to love that thing! I'm gonna try and find a used one cos I had the chance to do some of my best experimentation with that one. It was fun! In terms of noises and sounds I've been to Sheffield before. That naughty group called the Gatecrashers! There's a lot of [*Michael does incredible beatbox breakbeat for a couple of seconds*]!
The show, I decided to put a little bit of everything in. There's good standup and regular traditional comedy but there's also a little bit of theatre in there, a lot of music. I try and cover everything from Armstrong to Zeppelin. I'm trying to cover it all.
Are you aware of Billy Birmingham's audio comedy The Twelfth Man? He does the voice for most of the Australian Cricket commentary team – people like Richie Benaud. The last show he did saw the network sack the team and replace them with Birmingham. Are there any shows you'd like to perform all the roles for?
I would love to do the news. Including the female anchor. And the weather!
Do you need a licence to use your noise and voice throwing skills by the way? I'm imagining they could get you in a lot of trouble if you misused them.
You have to be quite careful and not use it for bad things! I mean that. Even on Academy I understood that Jones had to use his skills for good and not evil and that goes for real life too. No more talking food in the Chinese Restaurant!
Michael Winslow visits Sheffield's City Hall on Monday 28th May. Tickets are available from the City Hall website here. Michael's website is here.